On November 30th this year, a 15-year-old boy walked into his high school in Michigan with a semiautomatic handgun and opened fire at students as well as teachers. Later investigations revealed that the school shooter was suffering from mental health issues and had grown up in a domestic environment where such problems were dismissed by his parents and gun violence was considered to be a family activity.
The relationship between growing up in abusive households and individuals engaging in acts of violence (sometimes mass destruction) has been a well-documented one, with many claiming that the same ratiocination can be applied to the horrible anti-feminist shootings at the École Polytechnique in 1989. Others went as far as to blame the feminist movement for provoking men and frustrating them.
Denis Villeneuve has been in the headlines a lot lately, especially due to the arrival of his sci-fi epic Dune. This highly-anticipated release made many fans revisit his earlier masterpieces such as Incendies and Enemy but one largely neglected (maybe because it was controversial at the time of its release) gem from Villeneuve’s illustrious filmography is Polytechnique, a feature film which documents the atmospheric horror of living through and living with the trauma of an irrational massacre.
On the 6th of December, 1989, a mentally disturbed man named Marc Lépine walked into a mechanical engineering class and shot the female students because he hated feminism. He exited the classroom and continued his killing spree before finally killing himself, thinking of this violent tragedy as a way of waging war against feminism. In his suicide letter, he wrote: “I consider myself a rational erudite that only the arrival of the Grim Reaper has forced to take extreme acts.”
Thanks to internet culture and the evolution of mass media, the views of Lépine are often attributed to conservative fascists and the incel community. It is not a revelation that there are many more Lépines waiting in the wings for the “cultural revolution” to happen, the same revolution which is often discussed on obscure internet forums and where the participants are mostly basement-dwelling middle-aged men or 15-year-olds like the Michigan school shooter who are radicalised by social media.
Many critics condemned Villeneuve for undertaking a cinematic recreation of such a serious antifeminist attack, calling it disrespectful and exploitative. However, Polytechnique is just as important now as it was back then because it provides insights about the structures of hatred that have governed media consumption for years now and why they are even more dangerous today.
Although it has a short runtime, Polytechnique is the perfect example of effective cinema. Through its beautifully bleak black and white cinematography, Villeneuve invokes the memory of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant but manages to create a harrowing experience that is highly respectful towards the victims as well as the extremely critical of the misogynistic views that the shooter harboured.
Instead of indulging in didactic diatribes like Lépine, Villeneuve exposes the extremely patriarchal structures of power that operate to systematically subjugate women. One of the central figures of Polytechnique is a highly intelligent female student who is discriminated against on the basis of her gender in a job interview and returns to her mechanical engineering class only to be shot down by a man who believes that there are no real systemic problems and that feminists are the real enemy.
It is shocking to observe that similar narratives are methodically regurgitated to this day by conservative outlets, even by female spokespersons who try and convince young girls that feminism is evil while advocating for equal pay at their news networks. The target audience, however, is definitely the male demographic who refuse to accept that they are complicit and culpable for the prejudices agains women that have been coded into the system since its conception.
Villeneuve handles these highly intense oscillations between shock, horror, hate and trauma like a true master. Through a non-linear narrative structure, he makes the audiences pick up the pieces of an event that shattered the collective consciousness of women and students who had to fear for their own lives. Polytechnique cleverly highlights the disconnect between the ideological manipulation inherent in conservative radicalisation and the sociocultural realities.
Polytechnique can only be described as the manifestation of human horror, amplified by Villeneuve due to his impeccable ability to weave together unforgettable images. It is definitely one of the most important projects of his career because the event he was remembering is still being replicated with no end in sight.