Polytechnique (2009), dir. Denis Villeneuve

Bowling for Columbine (2002) seems to suggest that mass shootings and gun deaths are a uniquely American problem: Canada is a land of safety, with doors left unlocked inviting neighbours and strangers in, background checks and legislation. But these differences in scale do not prevent mass shootings (and particularly school shootings) from being a global problem. Whether a generation of schoolchildren growing up in fear or a minor exception, this does not take away the power and the tragedy of this violence. Indeed, I first learned about the 1989 Montreal massacre that is depicted in Polytechnique after yet another act of white male misogyny back in April after the “incel” motivated violence in Toronto. However, our understanding of “incels” emerge from an act of misogyny in itself, as Farah Mustafa and Mari Ramsawakh stress in the Toronto based publication Nuance, focused on immigrant voices around sexual health. As Mustafa and Ramsawakh write, the term ‘involuntarily celibate’ was coined by a woman addressing gender and mental illness; the concept of “incel” has instead been corrupted to ignore the “disabled”, “racialized”, “infantilized”, and “desexualized” “marginalized groups” that “don’t threaten violence when their needs aren’t met”; instead, the white male community of “incels” use their “lack of sexual experience” as a “flimsy excuse to uphold the patriarchy and perpetuate misogyny”.

The school shooting genre of cinema might be a small and under acknowledged unifying theme, it has many different incarnations. In Rudderless (2014), the background to our characters’ situation is framed through a difficult-to-process opening, staging a campus shooting before depicting a process of mourning. Ultimately, we cannot detach the reality of mass shootings from how this violence is represented, and how much of a fine line must be taken. Perhaps the most notable is Elephant(2003), named after the even more traumatising (and less humanising) IRA-themed Elephant (1989), a film that continues to scare me. If you find Van Sant’s Elephant voyeuristic and insensitive, Polytechnique will not solve that.

But Villeneuve has some strengths that might be in Polytechnique’s favour. His use of monochrome allows for a degree of visual separation from the reality of events. Brown, desaturated blood allowed Taxi Driver (1976) to pass the MPAA; here, the black, monochrome blood is arguably more effective than red blood, shifting from an overwhelming, fetishistic visual spectacle into cold reality: the violence and the mourning are a blackness. In Montreal’s cold and constant snow, so influential to the visuals of the dystopian Blade Runner 2049 (2017), there’s a contrast of whiteness in the falling snow and rooftops. Monochrome emphasises the film’s nature as an intimate character drama. The text in the opening and closing is genuinely respectful, acknowledging these characters are fictional; in the closing credits, each name is allowed a memoriam, slowly fading between each so no name escapes a person’s memory. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like for a survivor or a relative watching their reality played out on screen.

The complex structuring device isn’t unfamiliar to the manipulation of narrative time in Arrival (2016), or the shifting points of view in Elephant. Villeneuve allows us to confront these events from two points of view, without pathologising the life of the shooter. Instead, Polytechnique allows us to experience the trauma and mourning of violence as powerfully as Villeneuve achieves in Prisoners, witnessing consequences and aftereffects, but also the hope of a new and better generation. The focus on female engineering students acts as a thematic precursor to Villeneuve’s continued focus on female protagonists in positions of power in Sicario (2015) and Arrival, allowing us to witness the pressures of misogyny that women face, ignored by the shooter’s incoherent diatribe against feminism and women overtaking male positions of power. In a job interview, an employer suggests women must be in lower, less qualified positions with fewer hours to facilitate childbirth. We see how soul crushing and demoralising that assumption is. By the conclusion, we move through mourning into maternity without sacrificing workplace gender parity. Actions within the narrative reflect the difficult relationship between male and female identity: as the classroom is divided into two, between men and women (a practice often carried out by teachers, reflecting the negative roots of fundamentally gendered society), the inaction of men speaks volumes. No man, not even the professor, is willing to risk or sacrifice their lives to save their female classmates; it is easier to run away, with the shooter allowing male students leniency and a chance to leave. Administration, even a security guard, denies the possibility of this reality, assuming the incident to be a joke. The toxic ideology of a woman’s subservience is a recurring ideology, whether manifesting in (physical) violence or in violent words. Women become a sexual necessity, no matter how unattractive misogyny is; the price is a series of lifeless bodies without erotic dimension. Feminism becomes a slur: even at gunshot, in their last words, the girls deny being feminists, just wanting to live their lives. As Mustafa and Ramsawakh argue, the “ideology” and “violence” of misogyny is “terroristic”, despite fitting outside “our legal definitions of terrorism”.

There’s tenseness throughout, even when reading notes in the college library, listening to Tainted Love (1981) and The Safety Dance (1982) through the boombox, or photocopying lecture notes. Villeneuve is a highly visual director, but character and scenario remain imbued with substance behind those visuals. As one of his final French language works – Polytechnique would be followed by Incendies (2010) – Polytechnique is an important film, imbued within the distinct filmmaking processes of Quebecois film culture – a grant-based government focus on cultural products and the provincial language. But Canada never leaves Villeneuve’s works, from the focus on national borders (Mexico in Sicario, Montana in Arrival, filmed in Montreal), or the landscapes and isolation of Prisoners.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), dir. Jean-Marc Vallée


C.R.A.Z.Y.‘s DVD cover casts Zac as Ziggy Stardust, yet the film left me with more of a taste to listen to Patsy Cline than David Bowie. As much as it wants to sell itself on its soundtrack, it’s hardly a rock opera with a standout soundtrack.

In a world where Peccadillo Pictures releases a billion trillion queer films, there feels something rote about the film’s narrative. Zac’s father is homophobic, resistant to his son ever being considered a “fag”, obsessed with masculinity and rejecting Zac ever taking on a more motherly role – something he essentially confirms for himself based on small identifiers when he is as young as 7. Later, he kicks Zac out of the house, talking about how disgusting gay sex is, and sends him to a shrink. What’s interesting is a few twists to the cliche: Zac’s mother is defensive, whilst Zac’s father is somewhat nuanced. In one scene, Zac’s parents discuss the possibility their son might be gay, following his sexual encounter with a classmate. Zac’s mother retorts about how she had anal sex many years ago, and not just once. “It’s not the same thing.”

Zac rejects the label, talking to a shrink (who tells him that this was his subliminal way of telling his father that he is gay). But this falls into another cliche trap:

*does something gay*

“I’m not gay”

*compensates by making out with Michelle*

*does something gay*

*compensates by beating up the boy he jerked up with*

*does something gay*

Labelled as a fag, he listens to Bowie, in a scene that seems straight out of Velvet Goldmine (1998). He ends up dating Michelle over several years; a refusal of his gay identity, or an embracement of bisexuality, or rejecting the notion that certain signifiers (even sexual experimentation) denote sexuality.

Yet often it feels like such a generic queer coming of age story, laced with every trope you would expect. There are so many coming out stories out there; I cannot project myself onto Zac with his coming out narrative and crowded household, nor can I project myself onto his nostalgic 1970s influences. I’m left being like “well, his stoner brother has kind of a cute beard”.

Zac is a chameleon of influences, and the mirroring his childhood and his teenagehood and young adulthood quite a lot, most obviously through the unsolved mystery of the father’s broken Patsy Cline record. He listens to records like his father; smokes cigarettes like his brother did when he was a child, adopting a rebellious, masculine image; wears a cross like his mother, not out of faith but out of an anarchistic aesthetic; adopts a haircut like Paul’s because he has a massive crush on him. He practices kung-fu moves like Bruce Lee, and covers his bedroom in posters of Bowie.

But whilst the mirroring of childhood is a strong aspect of the film, the scenes set during his childhood are also the weakest part. Half an hour feels like an eternity, before awkwardly transitioning from his childhood self pissing the bed into a 15 year old Zac. His rejection of Christianity because, contrary to his prayers, he pissed the bed, becomes the formation of his teenage self. This should play as genius comedy, but instead is just incredibly bizarre. Rather than a far less compelling version of Boyhood (2014), the film’s viewpoint should have been teenage Zac, communicating the same information in shorter exposition.

Zac exists within a stylised world, where he can float between the church and a Christmas party in one cut, and dub the choir with Sympathy for the Devil. The stylised world can work, like how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) removes us from the laws of physics, but C.R.A.Z.Y. is unable to find a balance between serious drama, lighter scenes and Zac’s sense of himself as a dreamer with all the power in the world. Where CGI smoke rings fly towards the moon, or a playground fight is played in fast motion, the film screams the mid-00s, not the mid-70s.

The film’s oddest aspect is its exploration of faith. An exploration of sexuality juxtaposed against an exploration of faith and spirituality could be a very interesting one, but what is executed here just seems bizarre. Zac is essentially the Chosen One, which seems appropriate, given that Hayden Christensen is Canadian himself. Born on the same day as Jesus, his mother expects him to use his great powers to save the Jedi Order, or rather, heal those in need in times of pain. He walks through the deserts of Tatooine, feeling a bond with his mother through the force.

Zac rejects religion as an atheist, but makes bets with God to see if he can make the crossing when the light is red, and make the snowstorm when he could easily get hypothermia. This ‘Chosen One’ mythos feels so unnatural, though his mother’s sentiment at times does feel natural. He still respects his mother’s faith, going to Mass every Christmas with them, and gifting her a book about Jerusalem. But when he goes to Jerusalem himself, it feels odder. We’re never given a clear reason as to why he makes this journey, besides curiosity and to please his mom. He ends up in the gay scene, meeting a man who simultaneously looks both suspiciously like Jim Morrison and like the Anglicised image of Jesus, speaking in English. Jesus walks alongside Zac, appearing to him in the desert as he treks into the abyss, without water, in a journey that makes little sense.

How this has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes is fucking C.R.A.Z.Y.

Mommy (2014), dir. Xavier Dolan


Part of me envies Xavier Dolan. He started out directing at the age I am now; 6 years later, he ends up on stage at Cannes alongside a Godard film. I’ve been meaning to check out Dolan’s films for a while, and I think I’ve started with his best.

It’s very difficult to describe this film, except that I love how it intersects the teenage ‘coming of age’ story with a more adult, maternal story. Neither of the two narratives seem more dominant, though I expected a greater focus on Steve’s character. But I’m glad that’s not the case, because Steve isn’t just a character in himself, he’s an enabler, who creates the narrative that affects the lives of the other characters; a point Die makes whilst drunk within the film itself.

It’s a film I couldn’t show to my own mum, because it would just be too personal and speak too much to her that she’d end up in tears.

A lot has been said about the film’s 1:1 aspect ratio. Reviews have called it “constricting”, reflecting a sheltered existence and all the rest of it, but more obviously, it’s a ‘selfie’ aspect ratio. A phone aspect ratio. How do we see the world – through phone screens and the height of people, or through vast cinematic vistas? The realistic, or the idealised, as we see the screen expand outward past the pillarboxes for some of the more euphoric scenes, as with the reveal of the otherwordly landscape in Oz the Great and Powerful (2013).

In other words, do we favour people or locations? The little neighbourhood in Montreal is nondescript, with a supermarket and some neighbors and that’s about it. Montreal as a location becomes a character, and  its ordinary, normalised life says a lot about our characters.

Other observations: the majority of the film’s score is presented to us through Steve’s perspective, as we become locked in to the music being played through his headphones, directing us away from the female perspectives of the film.

In many ways, it’s a film about communication. Steve isn’t able to communicate with other people in the way expected of him so instead resorts to violence, but we still see him as a caring person with aspirations and attachments and feelings of compassion to both his mother and dead father. Meanwhile, their neighbor deals with a stutter, an aspect Steve mocks. Steve’s mother isn’t sure how to deal with her son, unsure how to use the right tenor with him, unsure whether juvie is the best place for him. Yet Steve wants to communicate through art. Another aspect is the divide between French-Canadian and English. Steve knows English through passing phrases and swearwords, but is used to French-Canadian. English holds a covert, secretive meaning.

But there are so many heartwrenching moments and gutwrenching moments that I can’t decide whether I side more with the mother or her son. Is Die right to sign the forms; is Steve right to act like this? Can I sympathise with his position?

It’s a film about questions and it ends on a rhetorical one – and I really do think it’s one that will still be talked about when the 2010s are but a hazy memory.