While the world waits with bated breath for Denis Villeneuve’s highly-anticipated Dune adaptation, there’s surely no time like the present to revisit some of the acclaimed French Canadian filmmaker’s early work. Thanks to the British Film Institute, a beautiful new Blu-ray release of his 2009 drama Polytechnique presents the perfect opportunity to revisit his first masterpiece.
Based on the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre (also known as the Montreal Massacre), this harrowingly authentic drama re-enacts the events of that horrible day through the eyes of two students. Similar in tone and structure to Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winning Elephant, Polytechnique is a far more impactful and moving film. Shot in stark black & white by cinematographer Pierre Gill, the film’s uncomfortably realistic portrayal of the shooting is impossible to tear your eyes away from.
Opening with the killer preparing for his attack while his chilling – and very real – suicide note is read, verbatim, in voiceover, the film then sets about bringing the horrors of that day to life. It is a very difficult watch, as the killer’s anti-feminist and misogynistic attack is realised and the bodies pile up. What sets Polytechnique apart from other similar films, however, is how it portrays the aftermath. The film’s final message, surprisingly, is one of hope and love. At a brief 77 minutes, the film is an incredibly artistic and powerful adaptation of a horrifying day but one that manages to find an inspiring beauty in its final minutes. It is clear now, revisiting this film, that it was the birth of a masterful filmmaker who would go on to give us such modern classics as Prisoners, Arrival and the epic Blade Runner 2049.
This incredible Blu-ray from the British Film Institute combines two versions of the film – the film was shot consecutively in French and English, with the actors performing in both languages, resulting in two versions, both of which are presented here. The Blu-ray also boasts an extremely powerful documentary film entitled Polytechnique: Ce qu’il reste du 6 décembre made for the 30th anniversary of the massacre in 2019, narrated by the dramatisation’s star and co-producer Karine Vanasse.
Polytechnique is a hauntingly powerful portrayal of violence that manages to end on a note of beauty and hope, presenting filmmaker Denis Villeneuve at his best.