Case 4: The Multiplicities of Polytechnique (2009)

Co-written by Xi Wang

Actions and Behaviours

Director Denis Villeneuve’s 2009 Black & White docudrama Polytechnique is a retelling of the massacre that happened on December 6th, 1989 in which 14 women, including the male killer himself were shot and killed based on the murderer’s misogynistic hatred for ‘feminism’. The perpetrator of this attack; the deadliest and most violent terrorist attack in Canadian and Quebec history, in real life named Marc Lepin, is identified in the film’s credits only as ‘The Killer’. Walking into a mechanical engineering class, wherein a lecture is being given on Entropy (the dissociation of order into chaos), the killer firing his rifle into the air orders to divide the class. Separating the men from the women on either side of the room, then ordering the men to leave. The men comply with these orders, as the killer asserts his masculine dominance away from the professor’s and teacher aids taking their authority away from them. In scant, reassertion of authority the male teacher aide repeats the killers instructions to the men to comply. After they have left the killer fires his attack after giving a short speech to the women ‘mansplaining’ to them why they are there, and after some possibly perceived dissent with a woman briefly speaking out they are just women not feminists, she and the rest of the nine women are promptly shot by the killer.

Villeneuve maintains tight control over his craft creating a themes of duality and multiplicity ‘rifely’ throughout the film by filming in fundamentally different schemes that in some cases ironically counteract the very action of the film. The film is a true story told more or less factually as it happened, but all the characters are fictitious and given fictitious names. They nonetheless represent the identity of actual people. The director lenses the film in Black and White, in order to restrain the brutality of the violence in a way an earlier post-modern Canadian film ‘A History of Violence’ does not. In that way the effect of the film is purposely impactfully muted out of respect to the films families so as not to remind them of the grisly violence. Thus, the blood on-screen comes across as black. The Black & White aesthetic also offers a mission statement of sorts to the film.

Shot and produced simultaneously in French and English so that the audience are able to watch the film with the actors performing in either of Canada’s official languages with available subtitles [Of note: the special features are only available in French without sous-titres]. This appropriately reflects the culture of Canada and Quebec. The location of Montreal is relevant as well, as a cross-cultural centre, multilingual city of French and English, the namesake Polytechnique, ‘Poly’ itself means ‘many’ in Greek. Fittingly, we see many perspectives and histories at play here.

We see the perspective of the killer; defined as little more than a man with a gun. Bearing or taking up arms has long been supplanted as a symbol of masculinity, and here that symbolism is interpreted perversely into man’s seeming ability association with danger, death and destruction.  Conversely, or rather contrastingly the movie also follows a different sort of male- a student named Jean-Francois. His struggle or rather his futility to do anything in the face of chaos is considered very emasculating to his identity, at least to him, if not the audience. He tries to help by running out and down to the campus security office to alert them of the danger and is not taken seriously. He is not respected as figure of authority and thus ineffective in taking charge of the situation. He tries to comfort a female victim offering his jacket, in a way a piece or portion of his clothing representing part of his masculine identity. He does not see this as enough and Villeneuve’s direction has the audience feel the same way. He leaves her for a time and the audience as the film cuts away to another point of view. After his onscreen absence (absenteeism, another theme in this movie), he proceeds to gather medical supplies for the wounded female. Gathering and care-giving is predominantly seen in society as a feminine trait, even referenced earlier in the film at Valerie, the female protagonist’s job interview. After dressing the nameless female victim’s wounds and hearing her expressively say ‘Thank you’ it is still not seen to him as enough, and he continues to grieve wracked with survivor’s guilt of not having done more. Further, the comfort of love from his mother post-trauma is not enough to sway his feelings either in a way representing the ultimate male rejection of females in the film. By benefit of hindsight and passivity of the film, it is easy to imagine from the audience what he could have done more, but the director instead of damning or criticizing him as many of the men at the time of the actual shooting were and lets the character himself be, letting him criticize himself as he ultimately succumbs and surrenders to the post-traumatic grief and rack of survivor’s guilt and reducing himself to just another victim of the attack. Albeit a secondary one, just perhaps or even more vital to the story. To put it bluntly in the way of men, he like the killer he is mistaken for, does his own damning, doing himself in by way of suicide. Less of a psychological metaphor, and more completely in actuality. This is symbolic of typical male figures who are known for being much more physical and less cerebral than their female counterparts.

Villeneuve demonstrates this crude battle-of-the-sexes in the way that males use physical means and force; gunning women down, applying pressure to wounds and trying to offer physical comfort which is then turned away in favour of females; who more successfully offer comfort in the face of death. The shot of the two women trapped embracing each other before they are violently executed is one that comes to mind. Another, a two-shot of Valerie and her female friend Stephanie lying on the ground covered in blood similarly embracing each other, yet in this instance playing dead. The latter action taken by the female protagonist demonstrates her cerebral capacity in addition to her physical capability shown by her dragging her wounded-self out of the blood-soaked room then back again. Such ideas exposed to him would threaten the very foundation of the killer’s motives. And in then, after all is said and done, Valerie survives her oppressor of this great ordeal men, a triumph in her identity as a female and whether she believes it or not, a symbol of feminism she continues to exist developing relationships, having children and expanding her singular identity she was reduced to at the beginning of the film. What was interpreted from her at face value at the beginning of the film by the clothes she picks out with her friend for her job interview finally evolves into a deeper postmodernist identity creating a strong character arc that is the most realized in the film. The killer by comparison worries that his actions, oddly correctly so will be reductively interpreted as the degenerative work of a madman and they are. He never transcends his singular identity whereas she does. That’s a battle hard-fought and won in our opinion.

With the relationship between Jean-Francois, and Valerie who may or may not have kinship with one another it is interesting how Villeneuve; identifiably male himself, represents a reverence for the female gender in the film, above men. The female protagonist is demonstrably capable as the film starts, applying for an internship in mechanical engineering and continuously undermined by men at every turn: in the job interview she is given a sexist remark, in class she gives up her notes to be copied in order for Jean-Francois to have the same advantage she has worked for. The killer separates her from the men singling her out and attacking her. Still she gets back up after being bathed in bloodshed and returns to the classroom to help her friend playing dead for the killer (it is Jean-Francois returning, not the killer but she cannot tell the two apart). After all of this trauma through perseverance, her degree and internship, writing a letter to the killer’s mother and having a child. She succeeds continuing on unhelped by the men around her including Francois. His actions by comparison do not quite represent misogyny of the killer but are not quite interpretively heroic like Valerie. One of the interesting things Villeneuve does is place things like these misogyny and heroics and displays them on a spectrum.

The female point of view of the shooting coming after we see the male point of view is an interesting stylistic choice the film lays out considering it opens with a female point of view and intercuts to it afterwards with a female perspective, following Valerie who is one of the first victims. She is an engineering student, and she applies for the job interview in her pursuant field of work and is quizzed and questioned about her motherly instincts as if they are related to her job. They are related to the film though. Her motherly caregiving instincts are of note to the interviewer as the absenteeism of the motherly figure and instincts on-screen to the killer. He has a mother and writes to her, as does Valerie, yet her influence on the events is just as absent and lacking, she like the audience is a passive participant. Her letter references in the beginning and the end by the killer and the female protagonist she is read but she is never seen reading or receiving them herself on-screen. The killer writes to her before enacting on his murderous spree citing: ‘Dear Mom, it was inevitable’. Valerie writes to the mother as closure to the film while she is pregnant and hopeful for the future despite be falling tragic circumstances; she is severely wounded physically and mentally by the tragic shooting. Villeneuve frames these women in the film including Jean-Francois’ mother with reverence. Powerful and raw determination that the men of the film are expected to have in this world, both seek and find lacking.

Jean-Francois whose first appearance in the film mirror’s his male counterpart by being the subject in a shifting shot that goes from upside down flipping to right-side up as he rushes last-minute to finish notes for a lecture test, borrowing from ‘Valerie’ his female colleague. He goes to the copy machine allowing a woman to go ahead of him in line before returning a few minutes before the killer interrupts the class by firing a shot. Jean-Francois’ point of view shows the face and futility of decency and agency and a measured response in the face of unspeakable chaos, misogyny, and terror [Entropy]. Running from the lecture hall where which he abandoned his female colleagues he sprints down to the registration office, everyone else completely oblivious to the attack. He does not tell anyone else but a guard, a male who takes the news sitting down as a joke. Running back to the room where the shooting began as the chaos around him starts to come down he re-enters the room and is assumed by Valerie to be the killer coming back. The story serves masculinity as perpetrator in a deadly battle of the sexes. Jean-Francois surveys the classroom interpreting these women to be dead again and leaves to the copier where he was earlier, finding a victim lying on the floor. He comforts her with his jacket and then leaves her to get medical supplies, coming back to dress her wounds. Later on, he enters down a hallway where the killer is on his rampage shooting up the hallway and dives into an oblivious classroom. Again so it happens wracked by guilt of his identity, in multiplicity of itself: a man, masculine, male, survivor, he would rather reject them altogether than accept its feminine antidote.

Themes and Processes

Post-modernity is one of the most important topics and experiments in Canadian and Quebec cinemas since the end of 1980s, we can perceive this ideology From Marshall: “In the 1990s is that Canada is the first ‘post-modern state’”. A large number of Canadian and Quebec movies produced in this era reflected to the thoughts of post-modernity, such as Robert Lepage’s Le Confessional (1995), Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal (1989), David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), and Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009).

Processes of postmodernity in Canada and Quebec:

For the definition of the Canadian and Quebec postmodernity ideologies, from Marshall’s illustration, multiple histories, multiple identities and multiculturalism could be the key approaches in the Canadian and Quebec presentation of post-modernity. Comparing to the performance of single and particular history, truth and reality in the modernity perspectives, indistinct of hierarchies and diminishing of elites are signified in postmodernity. Connected these methods to the characters of Canada and Quebec, as the impacts of the Multicultural Act of 1988 and Bill C-93, multiculturalism and diversity infiltrated the Canadian and Quebec cinema. Starting from the economic recession in Montreal in the end of 1980s, these traits guide Canadian and Quebec cinema to choose the ideology of post-modernity, and the idea of postmodernity also benefits the Canadian and Quebec cinemas.

Polytechnique is a Montreal based Quebec film directed by Denis Villeneuve, and several Canadian and Quebec post-modernity elements, such as docudrama, black & white images, English & French, multiple narrations, sense & senselessness, violence & peace and identity politics were involved in this movie.

Four problematic from Marshall practiced in the movie:

First of all, the movie Polytechnique explored four differences between modernity and postmodernity problematic, which was indicated by Marshall as “diagnostic, pastiche, the city and memory”. In our opinion, the discussions of diagnostic could be the key point through the entire movie. Feminism, second generations from the immigrant families, ethnographic representation, and the choice between life and death were exposed as the diagnostic approaches. Secondly, pastiche was exposed in this movie. There were three narration clues included in the film Polytechnique, the murderer, the male student Jean and the female student Valerie. Rather than the single reality based on one storytelling strategy, the multiple narrative strategies involved in the movie provided us the opportunities to the further and critical thinking of  the ideas of multiple identities and choice making. Moreover, the idea of city was expressed in this film. Based on the real event happened in Montreal, Quebec and Canadian history, the descriptions of the city could be regarded as a part of the component of the narration and the identity. Last but not least, the topic of memory was demonstrated in this movie, and played an important role in the construction of the film. Both of the male protagonist Jean and the female protagonist Valerie were suffering from the tragic memories from the massacre; however, their reactions of the memory became another key value in the postmodernity narration.


Next, another postmodernity component usually can be discovered in Canadian and Quebec postmodernity is the cross-reference with intertextuality. Behind the images on the screens of the films, some other forms of arts and literatures may share the similar ideologies with the movies. Canadian and Quebec writer Colleen Murphy’s drama play The December Man (2007) can be perceived as the off-screen cross-reference to the movie Polytechnique. The December Man focused on the destiny of a fictional character Jean, who was a male student survived from the massacre but suffered from the guilt of not offering help to others. Although his parents provided enough support from the family, he still selected suicide, as a reaction to the aftermath, rendering the play’s and its ending tragic. There were variety of cross-reference elements contributed as postmodernity in both the play The December Man and the film Polytechnique. The support from family was the central value discussed in the play The December Man, and it also appeared in the movie Polytechnique before the male protagonist’s suicide. The judging and deliberations of offering help for others or not was investigated in Polytechnique, and it was also noticed in The December Man. Furthermore, The ideas about negative impacts of massacres on the innocent people were portrayed not only in The December Man but also Polytechnique. Besides the cross-references to the play The December Man, Polytechnique also can be related and referenced to oil painting Guernica (1937) from Picasso. The picture of the painting Guernica (Attachment 1) was shown in the scene after the killer started his first massacre in the classroom, and it was displayed as a freeze-frame for 2 seconds. Related to the background of the creation of Guernica, we can easily make connections to the movie. Guernica was an abstract painting created by Picasso in 1937, the same year after the Nazi army bombing in the Spanish city Guernica.

Although it was an abstract painting, the horror and tragedy of man-made massacre could be found in the painting, and humanity was the absent element in the painting. The movie Polytechnique was also based on the man-made tragedy with the deficiency of humanity, and the horror was expressed after the shoot. The associates between the painting Guernica and the film Polytechnique were regarded as the practice of cross-reference, and linked to the postmodernity.

Multiple identities:

The theme of multiple identities was demonstrated in this movie. From the post-modernity narrations, the characters in this film have not only the core identity but also some other supporting identities, from other dimensions of the narrations. The male protagonist Jean, his main identity in this movie was a college student, who survived from the massacre. However, from another angle of understanding of the plots, he could be described as a coward who didn’t save the lives of the female students in the classroom. Besides that, the female protagonist Valerie was also the character with the multiple identities. Valerie presented the role of woman with strong willpower on the one hand; on the other hand, she also provided us a role leading to the further discussion of feminism, from the arguments between her and the interviewer. Furthermore, though it was heated debated, in our opinion, the descriptions of the killer also represented the opinions of multiple identities. From one angle of the narration, he was a cruelly murder; but was also represented as the role of a son, who came from a second generation of an immigrant family, from another angle of narration that the letter he wrote to his mother. In addition, these elements of multiple identities reflected to the dramatic and complicated history of Quebec and Canada, rather than the dominant and unique history of American history.

Choice making:

Moreover, unlike the only one truth and choice that presented in the modernity films, ideologies of making choices appeared in the movie Polytechnique. The appearances of these choices eliminated the uniqueness of modernity, and reflected to the thoughts of post-modernity. The first choice appeared on the scene when the killer left his apartment after greeting his roommate, and loaded the magazine of the rifle in his car. Significant differences of choices were shown in this scene. Greeting other people exhibited the role of ordinary personhood; however, preparing the murderous weapon brought us to the role of villainy and evil. To be a normal person, or to be an inhumane murderer; this interrogation of choice in humanity was practiced from the narration of the killer’s behaviors, facial movements and mental activities. The second evidence of the choice making appeared when the killer asked the male students and professor to leave the classroom. Some images of the descriptions of the male protagonist Jean and other students show their hesitations; which could be linked to their decision of following the order of the killer and leave the females in danger, or rejecting his words and protecting the women. Another example of the choice making was developed as the aftermath reactions from the male protagonist Jean. The massacre of the Polytechnique campus ended after the suicide of the killer, however, the tragedies and negative influences still occupied in the mental world of the survivors. Although Jean was not the killer who caused the deaths directly, and he offered help for the female student who was shot and injured in the hallway; Jean was still suffering the trauma of guilt, leaving the classroom without rescuing the other female students. In the scene that Jean visited his mother’s place, and gained the support and understanding from his family member, the decision was developed, between the choice of reunion with his family and moving his life back to the right track, or the choice of suicide with the suffering of the guilty. Last but not least, the idea of choice making was illustrated from the narrations of the reactions and responses of the female protagonist Valerie, in the aftermath period. Although Valerie was shot and became one of the victims in the massacre, her willpower supported her to survive from the trauma. Comparing to Jean, the tragedy was also the shadow in her mental world, but she made the choice towards another direction. Although sometimes the nightmares of the tragedies still emerged in her dreams, Valerie decided to start the new life rather than suicide in consequence of these nightmares. She graduated from the engineering school successfully, and she also received the admission of the internship and a contentment of relationship.


  1.     Marshall, Bill. “Modernity and Postmodernity” in Quebec National Cinema. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, pp. 285-312
  2.     Murphy, Colleen. The December Man = L’homme De Décembre. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2007. Print.

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