Reliving the tragedy

A feature on the controversial film Polytechnique, about the Montreal Massacre.

Director Denis Villeneuve discusses his film about the Montreal Massacre

In Denis Villeneuve's controversial new film, Polytechnique, Maxim Gaudette plays Marc Lepine, who murderered 14 female engineering students in the Montreal massacre on Dec. 6, 1989. ((Alliance Films Media))

This article originally ran on Feb. 4.

Quebec actress Karine Vanasse says she became involved in Polytechnique, the first film to be made about the Montreal Massacre, to tell a side of the story she believes hasn’t been heard — that of the male survivors, who watched as gunman Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the city’s prestigious École Polytechnique engineering school, told the men to leave, and then shot 14 women because they were, as he put it, "feminists."

'There are so many reasons why [Marc Lepine probably did what he did. His father abused him. He had never slept with a woman. It’s impossible to say why he did it. I didn’t want to try to explain it. It would have been reductive. I think it’s more powerful to embrace the enigma.'-- Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve

"Many [commentators] reproached the men for not protecting the women, for abandoning them," the 26-year-old Vanasse (Ma fille, mon ange) says in a telephone interview a few days before the film’s premiere in Montreal on Feb. 2. "In this film, we did not want to judge or blame anyone. We wanted to tell the human side of the story."

But as the feminist slogan goes, the personal is political. The Polytechnique murders of Dec. 6, 1989, left an indelible mark on Canadian and Quebec society. Memorials protesting violence against women have become annual events. The killings also sparked a highly public campaign — led by parents of some of the victims — to create a federal gun registry.

"Dec. 6," as it has come to be known, hit Quebec particularly hard. The event is viewed as a family tragedy. A few days after the rampage, the Montreal Gazette’s headline was "City of Tears." Images of the dozens of stretchers rushing out of Polytechnique on that winter night are etched in Montreal’s collective memory, as is the 10-coffin funeral procession that wound its way from Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal to St. Laurent Boulevard. Most of the 19 names on Lépine’s infamous list of women he wanted to kill were high-profile Quebecers, including then labour leader Monique Simard – now head of the National Film Board’s French program — and journalist Francine Pelletier.

At the centre of the debate that occurred in the weeks after the murders was a single question: What drove him to do it?

According to Polytechnique’s director, Denis Villeneuve, two opposing monologues have defined the discussion around Dec. 6, with neither side paying much attention to the other. Lépine was the product of a misogynist culture, many analysts said; this camp was criticized for co-opting the massacre to advance a feminist agenda. At the other end of the spectrum were those who said the shootings were the extreme, inexplicable act of a madman; this camp was accused of being in denial about violence against women. A third group linked the mass murder with what they saw as the women’s movement’s emasculation of men, which resulted in male confusion and frustration. This perspective drew much criticism, likely because Quebec women have come such a long way in the last 60 years. A largely Catholic society where the priest’s word was gospel until well into the 1960s, Quebec was the last province in which women got the vote (in 1940).

Quebec actress Karine Vanasse, centre right, says Polytechnique tells a side of the story she believes hasn't been heard: that of the male students affected by the massacre. ((Alliance Films Media))

Villeneuve, who also directed the award-winning Maelstrom (2000), says he wanted to explore the massacre’s narrative from the point of view of the male students who witnessed Lépine’s terror. "We have talked a lot about how this drama has affected women, as we should have, but men were hurt as well. It had a major impact on them," the 41-year-old director says. "I wanted to explore and illustrate the humiliation and shame that [those] men lived."

Based on interviews with witnesses and shot in black and white, Polytechnique thrusts the viewer back two decades to the frenzy of exam time at the University of Montreal. Villeneuve said he chose not to shoot in colour because he wanted to push the envelope. "It would have been impossible to show the violence in colour without being gory." Indeed, the film’s stark images are exquisite.

Polytechnique will be released in Quebec on Feb. 6, and Vanasse and Villeneuve have made the rounds of Quebec’s radio and TV talk-show circuit in the last week. The film is being talked about at length, both in the Quebec media and among regular people. At the heart of the discussion is whether the film should have been made in the first place, and whether it’s worth seeing. Montreal’s French-language daily La Presse recently ran side-by-side columns by two of the province’s top journalists, Nathalie Petrowski and Yves Boisvert, in which they put forward their respective arguments. Petrowski said Quebecers should see the film because it's historically important; Boisvert, on the other hand, said he can’t bear to relive the event. In his piece, Boisvert poignantly describes going to a vigil for the women shortly after the killings, and being shattered by it.

Polytechnique’s principal gift is the character of Jean-François, a young male student who frets over whether to try to help the shooting victims, and later commits suicide in despair. Played by Sébastien Huberdeau, Jean-François is based largely on the real-life story of Polytechnique student Sarto Blais, who witnessed Lépine’s rampage firsthand and later killed himself (followed shortly by his parents). Jean-François provides insight into a little-known aspect of this horrific story.

Director Denis Villeneuve, seen at right. ((Alliance Films Media))

As for Lépine, we don’t learn much more about him than we already know — that he was a loner who hated women. This is the film’s central failure. By not probing Lépine’s psyche, Polytechnique avoids the most important element of the tragedy. Aside from a few passages from his suicide note, we learn little of Lépine’s background or circumstance. There is no reference, for example, to Lépine’s father, an Algerian immigrant; born Gamil Rodrigue Gharbi, Lépine changed his name in grade school to spurn his violent, abusive dad. While Lépine isn’t portrayed as a monster, he nonetheless comes off as someone operating in a vacuum — the mysterious, incomprehensible "other." Yet abundant material exists to flesh him out. His mother, Monique Lépine, wrote an autobiography last year about her life before and after the massacre. A few passages from it would have enriched Polytechnique.

Unlike Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant, which is a deft portrait of both the Columbine High School killers and contemporary American culture, Polytechnique provides little insight into Quebec society. Villeneuve works so hard to re-create Lépine’s shooting spree that at times, I felt like I was watching a horror movie. But despite the shocking images, the film left my mind almost immediately after the credits rolled. That said, Villeneuve’s approach seems to work for many observers. The film is getting good reviews in the French press.

The director had the support of the victims’ families and the survivors to make the film, which may explain why he shied away from a more in-depth psychological analysis.

"They did not want to see a portrait of a killer," Villeneuve says, quickly adding that it was his choice not to delve too deeply into who Lépine was. "There are so many reasons why he probably did what he did. His father abused him. He had never slept with a woman. It’s impossible to say why he did it. I didn’t want to try to explain it. It would have been reductive. I think it’s more powerful to embrace the enigma." Either that, or it’s easier.

Polytechnique  was shot in two versions, one in French and one in English. The English version will be released in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary on Mar. 20.

Patricia Bailey is a writer and broadcaster based in Montreal.