Embracing Enigmas: Polytechnique and the Unseen Victims of the Montreal Massacre

By Shiori Hamasako

polySorrow, fear, and guilt – in the silent world of black and white, two people are suffering to find a way out of darkness; the darkness is called trauma. Polytechnique is a movie based on the real events of Montreal Massacre, which happened at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on December 6th, 1989. On that day, a man named Marc Lépine walked into an engineering school armed with a rifle and knife. He fired his gun at 28 people, killing 14 women because they were, as he put it, “feminists”. The Montreal Massacre is considered as the worst targeted mass murder of women in Canadian history. Because Lépine targeted only female students and staff, women across Canada were speaking of the massacre as “both symbolic and symptomatic of a society that creates misogyny and tolerates it.” So to say, a lone madman and an act of his madness were linked to all men in the society. “Men cannot know the feelings of fear” – this was the idea various media coverage gave to the society. Although there were many men who suffered from what happened, they were ignored and never really talked about. The film, Polytechnique, was released in 2009, 20 years after the incident. Shot in black and white with little plot, it plays like a silent movie. What is more unique about this film is that the same rampage scene is retold from two different points of view: a male student, Jean-François, and a female student, Valérie.  By showing their different mental conflicts, Polytechnique gives a more balanced view of the incident – women were not the only victims, but men suffered too.

December 6th, Wednesday, 1989 was a freezing day with a snowstorm raging all across Quebec. The Montreal Massacre occurred at one of the most prestigious schools in that region, École Polytechnique at the University of Montreal.  Shortly after 5 p.m., twenty-five year old Lépine dressed in hunting clothes was armed with a legally procured Mini-14 rifle and a hunting knife. Lépine began the attack by entering the second floor classroom where a professor was having a lecture for engineering students. Lépine separated the men and women, ordered approximately fifty men to leave, and the rest, nine women, to stay. After Lépine confirmed all men had left, he walked closer to the nine students and asked, “Do you know why you are there?”  One of the girls answered “No.”  He replied, “I am fighting feminism.”  The student who had spoken added, “We are not feminists, I have never fought against men.”  He immediately started firing on the group, from left to right, killing six and injuring the rest. Then he moved to other places, including the cafeteria, corridors and some classrooms. He aimed at every woman he could find, and fired his rifle at them. Lépine’s persistence can be seen in this brutal episode; when he found one of the victims was still alive, he stabbed her with his hunting knife until she stopped moving. In the end, he muttered an expletive and placed the gun in his face, killing himself to finish the rampage. The rampage lasted for about 20 minutes, and in total, he shot twenty eight people, including fourteen women killed, and ten women and four men injured. In the three-page note which was found in Lépine’s jacket, he blamed feminists for “ruining his life.” He described feminists as enjoying their unfair advantages, and that had enraged him for the last seven years. He also includes a list of nineteen Quebec women having achieved some advances in traditionally male professions: accountancy, journalism, labor organizing, sports casting, firefighting, and police work. He obviously wanted to kill them because he believed they were radical feminists. Although Lépine’s motive seemed political as he mentioned, later the police found that Lépine had been refused admission to the Polytechnique for his lack of the required courses. He was also fired from his job at the hospital for his aggressive behavior. Nothing in his life was going very successfully, and he knew who was to blame: women who were taking over men’s position.

Later in the evening, the shocking news quickly ran all over Canada. Various radio stations reported the fear of survivors, beaming their interviews with voices stifled in tremulous sobs. News reports continuously showed the wounded people in stretchers and frightened survivors in tears. It gave people an account of how horrifying the rampage was. The incident was very shocking to everyone, including both men and women. The simplicity of Lépine’s motivation brought fear to many women that they could have been the one whose life was taken. Because Lépine left too many enigmas surrounding his death, their fears and outrages had no outlet. Pushed by many media coverage, people began to state that the single act of Lépine was a reflection of the Canadian society that permits violence against women. The hostility has been shown by many women towards men and the society which approves of sexism: violence and pornography, blatant abuse of women in the workplace, or sexist jokes and cartoons.

The number of victims was officially announced as 28: 14 women killed, 10 women and 4 men injured. Although the physical wounds were more visible, some of those who referred as “survivors” also struggled psychologically to deal with the rampage in the aftermath. Many of them were plagued by nightmares and traumatic stress disorders. Some students and facility staff never set foot in the Polytechnique again. Male survivors came in for criticism that they should have tried to overpower the killer. Mark Steyn, a writer and cultural critic, described those male survivors as a reflection of Canada’s passiveness. He said the image of Canadian maleness is not Mark Lépine but the men in that classroom who abandoned their female classmates, criticizing their behavior as “an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history.” However, Rifiorati, a male student who was in the classroom talked in the interview of The Canadian Press, saying that “We were engineering students. None of us ever had military training. […] I don’t think it’s possible for university engineering students to have the reaction to actually jump on a guy who’s shooting all over the place.” One of the male survivors followed after the 14 slain. Sarto Blais, an engineering student at the Polytechnique, hanged himself eight months after the massacre. He said in his suicide note that he was torn apart by guilt that he didn’t stop Lépine. The following June, his parents also committed suicide for not being able to accept their son’s death. Although men were never considered as victims, there were many men who suffered because of what happened.

Polytechnique, directed by a Québécois filmmaker Denis Villenueve, was released in 2009, 20 years after the massacre occurred. Although Lépine left so many enigmas after he finished the rampage by killing himself, the film does not explain anything about the killer. Throughout the film, Lépine’s name is never mentioned once. In fact, the film is not about Lépine, but about the two survivors who went through the incident. In many ways, Polytechnique can be described as an unusual film; it documents a real event which has been treated as a sensitive topic. It is only 77 minutes with little dialogue and a one-note musical motif which intensifies the air of tension. Villenueve said he shot it in black and white in order to avoid the appearance of blood. All of these effects make Polytechnique somewhat like a silent film, which gives viewers an impression of something real, serious, and historical.

The film shows three main characters: the killer, a female and a male student, Valérie and Jean-François. The story first follows the killer by showing how he prepared and carried out the brutal event. He is shown as heartless, and he rarely speaks. The film does not show any sympathy for the killer, not offering the facts that were revealed afterwards: he had an abusive father, he hadn’t gotten enough attention from his parents, and he had never slept with a woman. In fact, Villenueve talked about this in one of his interviews: “It’s impossible to say why he did it. I didn’t want to try to explain it. It would have been reductive. I think it’s more powerful to embrace the enigma.

After the brief description of Lépine, the story moves to Valérie. She is studying engineering to pursue her dream – to become an aerospace engineer. She is one of the female students who were first shot in the engineering classroom. Although she manages to survive, she loses her friends, including her roommate, Stephanie. Earlier that day, she experiences a humiliating job interview. She meets discrimination from a male interviewer, who believes women cannot work in business and have aspirations to have children at the same time. A few years later after the massacre, she has achieved her dream job, and is working as an aerospace engineer. She lives happily with her loved one, although the time has not healed her mental scars. In the last scene, she finds herself pregnant. She feels scared and writes a letter to Lépine’s mother.

The third character, Jean-François, is an engineering student at Polytechnique and a good friend of Valérie and her roommate Stephanie. He is one of the male students who is in the engineering classroom where the rampage takes place. He is taking a lecture with Valérie and Stephanie when the killer comes into the room. Like the other male students, he meekly obeys Lépine when he orders men to leave. Later he comes back to the room and finds the dead bodies of his classmates. After the incident, he is harrowed with guilt that he did not do anything to stop the killer. In the last scene, he commits suicide for not being able to deal with the sense of sin. His narrative is largely based on a true story of Sarto Blais, a real student at Polytechnique who hanged himself 8 months after the massacre.

Controversy surrounded the film about whether it was an important film to remember the tragedy or it just recreated the events and stirred up people’s grief. Many Quebeckers believed that few would want to see and remember that day, if they already knew what happened. December 6th in 1989 was one of the profound moments that everyone was shocked to the core by the violence of a young man. It was still a great taboo to people in Montreal, even after 20 years. As movie critic Brendan Kelly says, “It’s a dark, dark event in Montreal’s history, Canada’s history, and you better have a real darn good reason to make that film, and I don’t think he [Villeneuve] did.” On the other hand, most film critics gave the film positive reviews. Nathalie Petrowski, a columnist with La Presse, commented that “I thought it was 20 years later, I thought I was kind of detached .… This film totally shocked and stunned me. It’s very hard to watch, especially coming from Montreal.” She also said that people had been putting a lid on the events for a long time, and therefore it was time to have a discussion. Many people agree that the movie is necessary for new generations to learn about the brutal event.

At the box office, the film was a great success. Even though the movie received limited release, the film has grossed $1.66 million as of May 28, 2009, making it one of the highest-grossing Canadian films of the year. In January 2010, it was named the Best Canadian Film of 2009 by the Toronto Film Critics Association. Three months later, in April 2010, Polytechnique won nine Genie Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Villeneuve, Best Actress for Vanasse and Best Supporting Actor for Gaudette.

In the film, Villenueve mainly focuses on three factors: present sexism in the society and the incident from the point of view of a male and a female student. The same rampage scene is retold from their different perspectives and it moves on to their aftermath, showing their different responses to the incident and to living with trauma.

Before the rampage occurs, Valérie has a job interview for an internship in aerospace engineering. Valérie tells interviewer how she has been passionate about her dream but the interviewer replies that her chosen field might stand in the way of “all women’s desire,” to become a mother. The interviewer suggests to her an easier field to manage both work and family, and she has to assure him that she does not want a child. Valérie is very upset about his stereotypical view against women without evaluating her ability. This scene shows an example of contemporary sexism with which we are all familiar. Although she obtains an internship as she wanted, she has to suffer verbal sexual discrimination. The male interviewer does not seem to intend offence nor refuse Valérie for her sex. This scene shows sexism is deeply rooted everywhere in our lives. It enables some people, such as the interviewer, to become stereotypical without being sensitive about it. By showing this scene, Vellenueve gives a neutral stand in the existing two arguments: the Montreal Massacre is either reflection of the society or a single act of a madman. The contemporary issues among gender are various, but Villenueve did not choose daily violence against women as an example. Admitting pervasive sexism in the society, Villenueve does not explain the relevance to the rampage.

The shooting scene is first shown from Jean-François’ points of view. He was in the classroom taking a lecture with his friends Valérie and Stephanie. The classroom was where Lépine first started his rampage, and he is one of those men who has to leave their female classmates as Lépine orders. Jean-François is described as a soft-hearted person who tries to stay imperturbable and do something to stop the rampage. When Lépine threatens him to leave the class with rifle, Jean cannot do anything. As soon as he steps out of the room, he runs directly to the security department, asking a guard to call the police. However, on the way back, he finds drops of blood coming from a door of the classroom. He fearfully walks in, and finds bloody dead bodies in the back of the room. He is shocked, closes his lips tightly, but he cannot hold back tears coming out of his eyes. Then he catches sight of Lépine firing his gun at some random woman, but he cowers and cannot do anything. He is not a military soldier, but an ordinary engineering student. He tries his best, yet he cannot do anything but help a wounded girl he finds on a hallway.

An engineering student, Valérie represents women’s view. She is one of the survivors of the classroom where Lépine shot 9 women after separating them from men. Showing the same rampage scene from her perspective, the film adds more details of what is actually done to the women in the classroom. Valérie’s rampage scene shows her confusion and fear against the unknown killer and his obscure purpose. She is shot in the head but she manages to survive and her roommate dies in her arms. When she is finally rescued on a stretcher, she sees Jean following her. He talks to her crying that “I’m sorry Val, I should have stayed.” Valérie answers “It’s not your fault, Jeff. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”  She says the same word three times. This seems to be a message from this movie – no one could prevent this incident, and there is no one to be blame, except the murderer.

In the end, when Valérie finds herself pregnant, and she writes a letter to Lépine’s mother, someone she thinks “closely connected” to. This letter is an important element in this film. Throughout the entire film, there is little plot besides this letter and Lépine’s suicide note. This letter is the only element that explains survivors’ feeling in words. In the letter, she looks back at her life after she unwillingly met the lone gunman. She tells how he left a great fear in her life and how she has been struggling to deal with it. Comparing the killer and herself, she says “He is dead, I’m alive. He is free but I’m not.” She expresses the difficulties of living with trauma: Each day, his memory haunts me …. Sometimes I want to shout from the roof tops how I’ve been hurt and not just physically.… I think of all women of all ages who were hurt in their soul. All this thinking, it weighs on me. And I’m tired of carrying that weight. ” She lost her roommate in her arms. She saw her classmates dying next to her. All of this tragedy happened for no particular reason but they are women and they are going to be engineers. The incomprehensibility of Lépine’s deed gives a great shock to Valérie, because there is no way that she can make sense of it.

She also expresses her fear of having a child: “I want with all my heart for this child to be happy, but I’m afraid. And I’m tired of being afraid.”  She is worried about whether she can if she could raise her child without leading him or her to a wrong way, as Lépine’s mother did. She is afraid if she could protect her child from the kind of tragedy she had to undergo. At the end of the letter, she says, “If I have a boy, I’ll teach him how to love. If I have a girl, I’ll tell her the world is hers.” She wishes to teach her child something that she and Lépine needed to be taught. She will teach “how to love” so that the boy would not need to live with hate. She will teach “the world is hers” so that the girl would not need to be twisted by sexism.

The film Polytechnique shows two different survivors, adding a side of the story which has not received much attention – that of the male survivors. Due to the media coverage at that time, many male sufferers were ignored. It was said that all men were as guilty as Lépine for permitting violence against women. However, although Lépine aimed only at women, people who were involved, both men and women, were traumatized. After 20 years, the film Polytechnique opened up discussions and people can now talk about the incident less emotionally. It gave people a chance to rethink the Montreal Massacre from a different point of view and to notice the unseen male victims.

Further Reading

Bailey, Patricia. “Reliving the Tragedy.” 2009. http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/film/story/2009/02/04/f-polytechnique-villeneuve.html

Kelly, Brendan. “Review: Polytechnique” The Gazette. 2009. http://www2.canada.com/montrealgazette/entertainment/movie-guide/story.html?id=5557629a-7838-49d3-8714-150c07b691c0

Rebick, Judy. “What was the Impact of the Montreal Massacre?” 2009. http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/judes/2009/12/what-was-impact-montreal-massacre-remembering-montreal-feminist-gatheri