What Role Does Film Have in the Telling of History? A Look at Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009)

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What value does fiction have in the interpretation of a historical event? This question can become central to the reception and understanding of historical films and has taken on important resonance in past years in regards to films like Ben Affleck’s Argo or Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. These films are not documentaries; however they attempt to portray accurately events as they might have transpired. A similar film that for Canadian’s is perhaps a little closer to home is Denis Villeneuve’s 2009 film Polytechnique. For those unfamiliar with the events of the film, it portrays a 1989 Massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, where Marc Lépine shot 28 people, killing 14 – all of whom were women. He purposefully targeted the women, blaming them for not being accepted into the school. Though on a smaller scale, like the two big Hollywood productions this film portrays an important historical event that already has an abundance of journalistic and scholarly work available on it. The importance, value and need for a film portraying the Polytechnique massacre became a central question in the film’s production and reception, as many felt that the film was exploiting tragedy in order to satisfy morbid curiosity.

From the onset, Polytechnique’s production was plagued with controversy. Denis Villeneuve in an interview with The Mirror explains how the film’s first draft was rejected by Telefilm Canada and SODEC (the two main funding agencies within Canada), but wanted to assure that this was normal practise and it was a valuable experience that improved the film. In an article by Matthew Hays, Villeneuve did add, however, that some people working at Telefilm, “really didn’t want this movie made. They felt it was just too painful” (I would have liked to link to the original article, however, it seems to no longer be available online since the Mirror transformed to CultMTL, for the very curious, it was entitled “Memories of a massacre: Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve on bringing a National trauma to the screen in Polytechnique” and originally published in February 2009). In a 2009 article for CBC, “Movie Based on Montreal Massacre Stirs Controversy: A ‘necessary film’ or a ‘disturbing’ flop?” journalists and critics spoke out regarding the film’s value and in particular on the film’s potential difficulties at the box office. Nathalie Petrowski, a columnist for La Presse, praises the film but did not believe in the film’s ability to find commercial success, “I think it will be a flop at the box office because people will be scared to go see it” Others, like Brendan Kelly of the Montreal Gazette, question Villeneuve’s intentions in making the film, “Now, Denis Villeneuve is a very skilled filmmaker. It looks great. There’s real tension there, but it has nothing to say and I find that disturbing”.

Decisions are taken in the making of Polytechnique that consciously transform our vision of history: namely, the names and identities of those involved are changed and the movie is shot in black and white. Marc Lépine’s name is not mentioned once throughout the film and in the credits he is referred to as “The Killer”. In its portrayal of events, a conscious effort is made to refuse Lépine the notoriety he was probably searching for and this is further emphasized by the film’s decision to focus more attention on the victims. The use of black and white cinematography is another decision that serves to de-emphasize the exploitative effects of the screen, softening the representation of blood. These decisions consciously divert from what we know as “historical realism” and the movie is bookended by sequences which suggest life before and after the massacre, which are inventive for the screen. These efforts similarly subvert how the event was initially shown and discussed on both radio and television, and how many such events are currently treated today by the media as well. The film does not attempt to recreate the images captured for the small-screen, but suggest an alternative point of view, that de-emphasizes the exploitative nature of the news media. In purposefully refuting the tropes that one might expect filmmakers to be drawing from, the filmmakers are similarly making a statement in our understanding and consumption of school shootings. In many ways, the film brings new life to the victims and through its temporal ambiguity suggesting the difficulty that news media is faced when it comes to portraying events and facts, and perhaps how they might fall short.

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Villeneuve nonetheless remains true in many ways to the events. In reading the Coroner’s report for the Polytechnique incident, most of the “massacre” is faithfully recreated from the official document. Any diversions from the report will be for the sake of character or thematic development and though the event’s temporality is distorted through editing style, the time-frame is remarkably on point. No violent act is embellished for gratification or removed for narrative or visual clarity.

Decisions relating to how a historic event will be brought to the screen are key to the dramatic filmmaker’s work. The countless variables which may seem irrelevant to historic writing become the central focus in dramatic films and the director must make decisions that based on assumptions in order to fulfill the demands of the cinematic medium. Cinema demands more than just the telling of a story but bringing to life the sights and sounds. This distinguishes the narrative film from other historical outlets as it has an ability to bring us into the event, to make us feel and live in a time that has passed. Film is a medium that is inherently flawed in telling the whole truth, its strengths lie in the ability to offer a sense of milieu and bringing emotional immediacy to the film viewers. Cinema offers an alternative point of view, one that contradicts and challenges these attitudes. But the question remains, what is Villeneuve trying to tell us about our past?

Questions relating to the faithfulness of the depiction of the Polytechnique massacre are therefore, less interesting then the discourse the film is having with our understanding of history. As film theorists and historians, we must look at how Villeneuve handles the events and what he is trying to suggest about our past. As mentioned earlier, there is a conscious effort by the filmmakers to remove exploitative elements from the film. Polytechnique makes no effort in explaining who Lépine was or why he carried out this plan of action, ideas that can be suggested well enough in writing. Villeneuve instead uses Polytechnique to offer a discourse that scholarly writing cannot.  In particular, the film uses visual metaphors that are reliant on movement and temporality, concepts cinema as a means of representing history.

In Polytechnique’s final shot, the camera stalks an empty hallway in the Polytechnique school. This shot is particularly unnerving because of the speed it moves and the fact that the camera is upside down, travelling across the ceiling. It is a moment not situated in any clear temporality and has an ambiguous subjectivity. The shot holds for quite a while before fading to black, it seems to be a moment reserved especially for contemplation. The violent interruption that disrupts the lives of these characters defies explanation. As Peter Howell of the Toronto Star explains, “The tragic art of Polytechnique isn’t what it shows or reveals but rather the contemplation it inspires”. Polytechnique does not exist to bring us to recreate a historical milieu, 1989 and the events that transpired are still familiar to Canadian audiences. It has different aspirations than a chronique, and offers something that words cannot. Villeneuve is more interested in the effects of grief and the chaos of violence in modern life, Polytechnique suggests that the effects of violence are not confined to the moment of “impact” and is not tied to a moment or place, but occupies a far more ambiguous space in our lives. The conclusions his film makes, deal heavily with representation that exists within the media itself. It is not so much a comment on the event, but a comment on how as a society we package tragedy to be consumed, absorbed and easily forgotten.

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In the portrayal of historical events, in particular those that deal with contemporary events, filmmakers are faced with the difficult task of bringing something new to the screen while remaining true to the facts. This becomes especially difficult in the face of tragedy, as emotions run high. Since Villeneuve’s film was released, there have unfortunately been many events similar to what happened at the Polytechnique over 25 years ago and as a society we still seem ill-equipped or unwilling to deal with the numbered consequences of such tragedy beyond the news when in truth, mainstream television journalism often seems just as ill-equipped to answer the questions, doubts and concerns that they inspire. Though not always the case , art offers to us a venue in which we can explore more difficult notions and move beyond the buzz-speak and sound-bites. Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, which remains an object of controversy here in Quebec, allows through its thoughtful and sympathetic approach, a new discourse to be opened on a subject that was never quite closed as much as it was pushed under the rug. What do you think is the role of cinema in the telling of history?

– Justine Smith




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