Strikingly Beautiful; Painfully Horrific

On Sunday night the CBC aired Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s 2009 film “Polytechnique” – a strikingly beautiful re-creation of the massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. Jessie and I missed this screening. So I went to Limelight Video, this perfect little video store a couple blocks away from my house, and rented it last night. We were both left shaken and in tears by the intensity of this film. It was painfully horrific. It sucked the air out of the room and left us feeling drained and, honestly, terrified.

For those of you who know little about the 1989 Polytechnique Massacre, please go read about it somewhere, anywhere. Wikipedia is a a nice place to start; but there are other places, like the CBC Digital Archive. Wherever you go, you’ll read about how a mentally unstable misogynist went on a shooting rampage at the Montreal technical University, shooting at only women. He targeted women because he believed any woman working in a typically male occupation to be a feminist.

He hated feminists. So he tried to kill as many as he could at a school for engineers. He went into a classroom and separated the men from the women, told the men to leave, and then opened fire on the women standing in the room. Then for twenty minutes he combed the halls of  École Polytechnique shooting at women, climbing on desks and firing at women cowering underneath, hunting them. He let the men run away to safety. He even stabbed one shooting victim to death before turning the rifle on himself. He killed 14 women and wounded 10 others.


For anyone who has attended post-secondary school, I am certain that the Massacre at École Polytechnique is always sitting somewhere in your consciousness.

Jessie and I were talking about it last night, you are hopelessly vulnerable to any psychotic individual wishing to hurt or terrorize; but, really, the horror of the massacre is more than security at post-secondary institutions, it’s about the focused killing of a group of people based on what they intrinsically are. It was a hate crime. A cutting reminder of how poisonous misogyny can be.

The event itself has been taken apart by some of the sharpest minds in psychotherapy, feminism, and criminology. They all have valid points as to why this man did what he did. Some points are argued intelligently and passionately, other arguments are clouded by bias or emotion. Indeed, gender is a barrier to a clear understanding.

As a man, I am situated somewhere outside the event. While watching the film, I was acutely aware that this attack was not directed at me and I was therefore safe, somehow. It was exactly the opposite for Jessie who, from the opening sequence of the film was on alert for the attacker. This dichotomy represents the dual impact of the attacks: it was by a man against women. Therefore, I cannot hope to understand the attack because of my gender, my privilege as a non-victim, separates me from the instant. Jessie, on the other hand, felt the attack on a visceral level. She wept, and was disgusted. She hid her eyes, and was devastated. Still, we were both shaken and hurt by the end.

The opening scene is a chilling alarm. Shot in black and white – in fact, the entire movie is in black and white – we see two women amongst a group of people making copies at a bank of printers. The camera is pointing toward the two women from along the wall to the right of the copiers making the shot an establishing one for place and time. There is much commotion and chatter happening in the halls and in the lines for the machines as the copiers scan and change rattles into the slots.  Then two, maybe three, gun shots ring out. The woman closest to the camera is hit in the shoulder and falls into the copying machine, the other women grabs her ear and falls to the wall. Students scramble to safety. A non-diegetic (i.e. not from within the film)  ringing sound fills the speakers. The woman holding her ear staggers stunned, lost, scared. The screen cuts to all black with the title of the film in white – Polytechnique – centered in the middle.

Jessie and I both stopped moving. She, I believe, out of fear, me out of shock. From there the film is unrelentingly intense. It never lets you go, as, I think, that moment and experience for those who survived has never let them go. It is a stunning film, beautiful, artistic. At one point a male character becomes transfixed by Picasso’s painting “Guernica” (pictured). The painting holds much significance in popular culture as a symbol for the artistic beauty of chaos and death against innocent civilians, as Picasso was capturing the bombing of Guernica by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War.

Villenueve’s film is, I’m convinced, a cinematic interpretation of that painting, its appearance in the film is fitting. Especially because a male student becomes transfixed by the beauty and horror of the painting. That same male character becomes the focalizer for the rampage we witness in the film. And, by extension, represents all men: we were merely observers of a horror we could not stop. Incredible film making.

Of course, this film is not about the male interpretation. It is a memorial to the women whose promising lives were cut short by a gun-toting misogynist. It is a call to end violence against women. And, it is a sterling example of how important art is for helping us understand horror.

These are the names of the women who were killed:

Geneviève Bergeron
Hélène Colgan
Nathalie Croteau
Barbara Daigneault
Anne-Marie Edward
Maud Haviernick

Maryse Laganière
Maryse Leclair
Anne-Marie Lemay
Sonia Pelletier
Michèle Richard
Annie St-Arneault
Annie Turcotte
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

These are the names of groups whose mission it is to prevent violence against women:

V-Day (
Futures without Violence (
The White Ribbon Campaign (
Canadian Women’s Foundation (
National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (
Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children (
The Status of Women Canada (


The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence starts Friday Nov. 25 and goes to Dec. 10.

The National Day of Remembrance of Action on Violence Against Women is December 6th. It’ll be the 22nd anniversary of the Massacre at École Polytechnique.


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