A weaker “Elephant,” Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s school-shooting drama “Polytechnique” nevertheless distinguishes itself by endeavoring to comprehend the 25-year-old man who murdered more than a dozen female students at Montreal’s Polytechnique School in 1989. Lensed in black-and-white, the 77-minute film is plenty arty and only arguably constructive in its tasteful fictionalization of a violent tragedy. Outside Quebec, where it opened strongly on Feb. 6, commercial prospects for the flashback-laden film appear dicey but not disastrous given the professionalism of the production and, sadly, the ease of the French-language pic’s thematic translation to most any territory.
Dedicated to the school’s students and staff, along with the victims’ families (whose loved ones are individually memorialized at the pic’s end), “Polytechnique” takes sufficient care to seem nonexploitative, and its violence, while aptly disturbing, is often obscured when not presented entirely off-camera. Still, the pic can’t fully shake its story’s connection to that of the average slasher film, particularly not with images of injured women crawling on hands and knees, nor the “Halloween”-style foreshadowing of bloodshed in a classroom lecture.
To its credit, “Polytechnique” doesn’t shrink from detailing the murderer’s misogyny. First seen composing an explanatory note that soon turns into a hateful rant, the unnamed killer attributes his rage to “feminists” who ruined his life.
Subsequent scenes emphasize the strength and autonomy of the school’s female students by way of identifying what would have threatened this self-described “rational” psychopath (Maxim Gaudette), whose swollen eyes and sullen demeanor give the character some resemblance to Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker character in “Spider-Man” at his lowest. Closeups of the shooter’s shaking hands in the minutes before he walks into school with a semiautomatic rifle in a garbage bag make him appear human, if not sympathetic.
In addition to Gaudette’s frighteningly believable turn, strong impressions are made by Karine Vanasse as Valerie (the pic’s Jamie Lee Curtis, one could say) and by Sebastien Huberdeau as Jean-Francois, a hunky young man who dares to pursue the killer. The viewer’s mounting hope that Jean-Francois will heroically prevent a death or two is among the signals that “Polytechnique” is a far more conventional enterprise than Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning “Elephant” from 2003.
For better or worse, musicvid vet Villeneuve (“Maelstrom”) has decided on a tone that’s only intermittently nerve-wracking, deploying some scenes largely for tension-relieving effect. As shot by d.p. Pierre Gill, whiteout images of wintry Montreal lend an ironic fairytale quality to the proceedings. Cost-conscious period detail includes a shrewd cover of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Through a climactic flash-forward, the film ends on a decidedly hopeful note.