As part of my July focus on Canadian films, Sydney reviewer Andrew Buckle of The Film Emporium has kindly provided his thoughts on two films from director Denis Villeneuve – Maelstrom and Polytechnique.
Andrew has reviewed a number of films from the ‘Possible Worlds – Top 100 Canadian Films‘ list, which inspired my focus on Canadian films this month. I strongly encourage you to check out his thoughts on the following films (click on the film title to go to Andrew’s review):
After the jump, check out Andrew’s thoughts on Maelstrom and Polytechnique.
Maelstrom is an acclaimed and award-winning French Canadian feature from Quebecois writer director Denis Villeneuve (Indendies). This somewhat bleak cautionary tale poetically blends daily happenstance with a touch of magic and takes the viewer on a journey into the depths of despair and grief, before offering up a hopeful and philosophical outlook on life.
Maelstrom won the FIPRESCI Prize in the Panorama category at Berlinale, rewarding Villeneuve for his innovative dramatic structure and contemporary sensibility. It also won five Genie awards in 2000 including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Lead Actress and Cinematography.
You know you are set for a strange experience when a fish narrates the story. A bloody, chopped up fish, whose amusing narration a hulking cleaver-wielding fishmonger often interrupts. Funny, frequently insightful and ultimately touching, this story of a young woman coming to terms with her wayward life is highlighted by several stunning sequences.
Daunted and overwhelmed by the task of running a trio of fashion boutiques and being the daughter of a celebrity, twenty-five year old Bibi (Marie-Josee Cruz) is struggling to cope with life’s building pressures. Bibi has her strength stripped; the film opens with an abortion, and later in the film she loses her business. She turns to alcoholism and drugs to escape. One night she hits an elderly fishmonger, who later passes away, with her car.
Haunted by the incident, she decides to destroy the evidence, and drives her car into the lake. When she survives and is given another chance, she ends up bonding with his grieving son, and turning her life around. Denis Villeneuve’s assured handling of his second feature transformed him into a director to watch (and his most recent feature, Incendies, was an Oscar-nominated masterpiece).
The stunning cinematography ensures the film’s visuals aid in the storytelling and the unique soundtrack choices are exceptional. The versatile central performance from the gorgeous Marie-Josee Cruz is also superb. Widely touted as one of the best films to come out of Canada, it is certainly a remarkable work sure to linger in the mind of thoughtful viewers.
Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve’s controversial 2009 feature, which won nine Genie Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, is a dramatization of true-to-life events. It documents the December 6 1989 ‘Montreal Massacre’ and its aftermath, in which a lone gunman murders fourteen women with a rifle at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, a post-secondary institution focusing primarily on engineering. The story told through the perspectives of three people.
The first character introduced is the shooter himself (Maxime Gaudette, Incendies), a misogynist who hates feminists (and female engineering students it seems) and blames them for the troubles in his life and his social alienation and disillusionment. We first see him sitting in his apartment with a large rifle pointed at his head. He wraps the rifle in a black garbage bag and narrates a suicide note, which is revealed later to be scrawled hurriedly on a scrap of paper, explaining the reasons for his future actions. His dissatisfaction has materialised over a number of years. He enters a class, orders all the men to leave and keeps the women hostage. One of the women is Valerie (Karine Vanasse).
Valerie lives with her classmate Stephanie (Evelyne Brochu) and has an interview for an internship in mechanical engineering on the morning of the shooting. Though she got the position, she was mortified by the interviewer’s condescending attitude and stereotypical view of her application. According to him, women usually opt for civil engineering and he presumptuously declares she would be better suited for civil engineering if she wished to balance a career with raising a family. After the interview an upset Valerie meets up with Stephanie in the bustling cafeteria and they make their way to class.
We also follow Jean-Francois (Sebastian Huberdeau, The Barbarian Invasions) for a while. He’s an engineering student struggling with an assignment. He is friends with Valerie and Stephanie, and is the only student we see interacting with both them and the killer (albeit briefly) prior to the shootings. As he is one of the men forced to leave the classroom, we experience the event, and particularly the aftermath, through his eyes. He considers standing up to the killer, but alerts security about the situation and instead of fleeing, tries to help some of the victims and makes his way back to the classroom where the girls were held.
What is brilliant about the film’s construction is the shifting back and forth in time asks an audience to consider and process the connection between the different perspectives. What we see in one actually aids in our understanding of the other characters. It shares a lot in common with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, in that it transforms an atrocity into a stylish work of art that effects on an emotional level, but gives a breadth of coverage while offering up no judgments. Villeneuve also effectively captures the atmosphere of a bustling university cafeteria with the students sitting in groups and conversing animatedly.
Depending on the individual we are following, the film’s tensions are altered. When the killer is firing at students we fear for them (and POV shots of frightened students peering over tables heighten this fear), but when Jean-Francois is tracking back through the carnage, we fear for him and what he will find. We don’t know what has happened to the group of girls because we follow Jean-Francois out of the room and then learn that the shooter has left the classroom and is now terrorising the halls and cafeteria. When Jean-Francois returns there we have no idea what to expect.
We are taken right into the head space of the characters. For the killer, this is done by a lengthy sequence of observation as he sits in his car and makes his final preparations. With his hands shaking (and he is clearly terrified) he checks his ammunition cartridges to see if they are loaded tightly, hastily amends (or finishes, it’s not clear) his note and tries to compose himself. The same can be said about the intimate observation of Jean-Francois as he struggles to come to terms with the situation and scrambles desperately to find first aid treatment for a wounded student. The film’s last third takes us back to Valerie and we are revealed what happens in the classroom from her perspective, given an insight into her new career, her reflection on the day and the lingering presence of the trauma. She analyses how the actions of the killer (and the attitude of the interviewer) have made her realize just how much hatred there is in the world and how under-valued career-orientated women are.
The film is shot in elegant black-and-white photography, which was a decision by Villeneuve to make the appearance of blood less apparent. The framing is ingeniously calculated and there is an array of long steady-cam tracking shots, POV shots and close-ups while incorporating a variety of unusual angles, giving the image a distinct personality. The editing between the perspectives is very crisp and Villeneuve has utilized an effective and understated score sparingly. This ability to mount tension and shift between different time periods is even more polished in his next feature, Incendies.
I was very impressed by Polytechnique. There is such intensity to every frame. The shooting rampage is horrifying, and we are immediately hooked by the opening sequence. This is sure to jolt a viewer who has no knowledge of what the film is about. Villeneuve has not disappointed me yet and is one of the most exciting French Canadian directors working today. I look forward to his next project.
Thank you Andrew for your insightful reviews of these two films. Be sure to check out Andrew’s work at The Film Emporium.