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Review: Denis Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique” and John Carpenter’s “The Ward”

Fernando F. Croce
Polytechnique

Framed in a close shot, college students go about their business around a Xerox machine when a spray of bullets suddenly rips into the image. Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve's 2009 fictionalized account of the 1989 shooting that took place at Montreal's École Polytechnique, is about the invasion of such quotidian spaces and the effects, physical and immediate as well as spiritual and lingering, it has on the people occupying them. At first, the narrative seems to be controlled by the young shooter (Maxim Gaudette), who in placidly bilious voiceover pins his barbaric actions on feminists and scans classrooms for victims, a rifle in his hands and eyes pin-pricked with loathing and anticipation. As the rampage starts, the focus is split between two survivors (Karine Vanasse and Sébastien Huberdeau), the agonizing heroism of their actions during the bloodbath and the traumas growing within them afterwards. A professional commiserator who operates exclusively via cinematic stomach punches, Villeneuve is clearly alarmed by history's innumerable chapters of senseless suffering, and even more clearly unable to address them in a manner that doesn't reduce them to deterministic melodrama. The killer's irrational misogyny is trenchantly linked to the more accepted sexism seen in a coed's humiliating internship interview, yet Polytechnique is less interested in scrutinizing the mutations of gender tension than in sidestepping the precise politics behind tragedy with a broad, diffuse sense of intertwined human misfortune. A well-meaning memoriam designed to revisit still-aching wounds only to tastefully dull them, the film aims for a combination of requiem and nightmare but, like Incendies, comes off like another variation of the dreaded Alejandro González Iñárritu Syndrome.

As in Polytechnique, an institutional building becomes a ghastly dungeon in The Ward. Where Villeneuve photographs zones of endangered normalcy, however, the much-missed John Carpenter plays with them until the very notion of "normalcy" bends like one of Caligari's painted shadows. Pondering the current state of the horror genre following a decade-long absence from the big screen (alleviated by strong work on cable), Carpenter must decide, like Frost, "what to make of a diminished thing." So, like the survivalists and bruisers of his earlier films, he sticks to his guns and forges ahead into battle. Other than a quicker tempo, this tale of an amnesiac arsonist (Amber Heard) trapped in a sinister 1960s mental asylum with assorted kooks and one prowling ghoul displays little indication of a rusty veteran trying to keep up with contemporary fright tropes. Rather than throwing his hat into the Saw-Hostel splatter arena, the filmmaker whips up frenzies both more modest and punchier, using resourceful characters to question order and reality, drawing on elements from Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, and tempering the screenplay's unreliable-narrator clichés with a scrupulous attention to low-key dread, ensemble interaction and unerring camera placement that's downright classical. The result is a trim, scrubbed work, as strange and distilled as a mid-1930s Tod Browning chiller, where the smallest hint of sentimentality or whimsy (say, the girls dancing to a pop song) is literally short-circuited and the mirror the heroine stares into in the final, closure-denying shot might have been pieced together from the same glass shards seen in the unnerving opening credits.

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