Part of our continuing partnership with the online film journal, cléo. Every month, cléo will be presenting a great film to watch on our video on demand platform. In conjunction, we'll be hosting an exclusive article by one of their contributors. This month Kiva Reardon writes on Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique, which is available to watch starting today in the US.
Like beauty, time is in the eye of the beholder. It slows, speeds up, even stops altogether depending on who is experiencing the moment. The task of the filmmaker—or any storyteller—is evoking an understanding of these personal unfoldings of time; to make an interiorized experience of another resonate with a human who feels, sees and understands the world as oriented around themselves.
“Forgive the mistakes. I had 15 minutes to write this.”
These are the first words spoken in Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique. They are uttered in voiceover by The Killer (Maxim Gaudette), a character based on Marc Lépine, who gunned down 14 women on December 6, 1989 at Montréal’s École Polytechnique. In this moment, the time at hand is The Killer’s: he washes dishes, loads a hunting rifle, laces his shoes. It is almost a benign portrait of a young man rushing out the door, late for class or work.
But Villeneuve does not allow The Killer to hold Polytechnique’s time hostage. Immediately before this portrait of a man’s misogynistic psyche (the words The Killer speaks are from Lépine’s real suicide note), the film opens with two women photocopying textbooks in a college hallway. Their conversation is indecipherable over the din of the students rushing behind them; their faces obscured by their loose locks of hair and the blinding flashes of light from the machines reproducing the pages they plan to study. Then they are shot. Time doesn’t stop, but it changes with a cut: one of the nameless women, bleeding from her ear, stumbles down the now deserted hall, which no longer echoes with the voices of her classmates but a painful high-pitched ringing in her, and our, ears. The time at hand is hers.
“Woman usually go for civil engineering, it’s easier […] Easier for raising a family.”
Villeneuve then introduces the time of Valérie (Karine Vanasse). She is best friends with Stéphanie (Evelyne Broch), a fellow engineering student, and the pair also live together, sharing complaints about schoolwork and job interviews. It is the latter that dominates Valérie’s day, as she prepares for a meeting to get an aeronautics internship. Yet again, time takes on a new dimension when the man interviewing Valérie comments, with casually insidious sexism, that her choice of field will make it harder for her to have a family. Villeneuve holds the camera on Valérie’s face in that moment, longer than needed to establish a sense of conversation through shot/reverse-shot, because that sentence, those five words—“easier for raising a family”—will stay with Valérie for her whole life. Villeneuve’s camera lingers and extends time, just Valérie feels the implication of the words stretch into her future.
“Girls on the left. Guys on the right.”
The final shifting hand in Polytechnique’s timepiece is Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau). He is adorable and affable, first seen changing out of his snow pants in the basement hallway of the college. (Those who have lived through Montréal winters know this ritual extends far beyond childhood). He borrows Valérie’s notes and arrives late for class.
Up until this point, Villeneuve interweaves these different experiences of time, but they all intersect for a brief moment when The Killer enters the classroom. Though the film is a fictionalized account of December 9, one point does stay true to the facts: The Killer forces the women to one side of the room and the men to the other. “Guys on the right.” So goes Jean-François, exiting to screen right, as the camera follows him out of the classroom. What transpires next is his perspective of the massacre, and, most intriguingly, his emotional state after. As Jean-François drives to visit his mother some days (or perhaps weeks) later, Villeneuve represents the young man’s overwhelmed mental state as the camera cuts from the interior of his car to an aerial shot of the vehicle driving along a river. The car is soon lost as the camera pans upwards and across the expanse of the dark waters and the ice floes, creating a sense of near-vertigo and dislocation from the concrete world. When, shortly after this sequence, Jean-François attaches a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car, gets in, and turns on the ignition, it is clear why: he could not change Valérie’s experience of the massacre and cannot live with this guilt. (“I should have stayed,” he says in a flashback, as Valérie is wheeled into an ambulance.) For him, time has become like those careening shots of the frozen water: spiraling into nothing. Time is too much to bear.
“I will stand on my own.”
After Jean-François’s suicide, time suddenly shifts back to Valérie. Back in the classroom and back to the site of trauma. The women are gunned down in what feels like an impossibly short heart beat. Valérie, who somehow survives, wakes up in a pool of her own, her classmates’ and Stéphanie’s, blood. Slowly, painfully, she tries to get help, but fearing The Killer is coming back returns to her would-be grave. “We have to pretend to be dead,” she whispers to Stéphanie. She does. Stéphanie is.
Like Jean-François, Valérie also has an epilogue—one filled with nightmares and post-traumatic stress, but also one showing her working in aviation (her dream) and living with a supportive boyfriend. Time, it seems, has moved on for Valérie. Yet, when she discovers she is pregnant, she is not only taken back to the trauma of the shooting, but the prophecy placed on her by her interviewer: “Easier for raising a family.” There is still much of her past in her present. Valérie, however, does not give up. For her, time is hard, but she can still envision another world, another way of living, another way of experiencing time: “If I have a boy, I will teach him to love. If I have a girl, I will tell her the world is hers.” She can envision a time outside of herself, and so she continues to live.