New Film About Montreal Massacre of Female Students Stirs Controversy

February 03, 2009

The first film about the killing of 14 women nearly 20 years ago at Montreal’s École Polytechnique has sparked weeks of both unease and strong opinions in Canada, far in advance of the movie’s premiere last night.

The weekend edition of The Globe and Mail asked readers, “Are we ready to relive the Montreal massacre?” This morning’s Toronto Star weighed in with a summary of a preview audience’s opinions that the movie is “highly emotive, not exploitive.”

As a result of both the film’s subject and the public debate, last night’s premiere of Polytechnique was a somber affair, according to The Gazette, a Montreal newspaper.

Although a trailer for the movie states that the black-and-white film is fiction based on real events, there’s no doubt that the unidentified killer it depicts is meant to portray the antifeminist Marc Lepine, who committed suicide after his 1989 rampage in the engineering school. One scene shows the gunman separating the female students from the males and herding them into a classroom corner.

Such images are expected to have a strong impact on the survivors and the victims’ families and friends. The École Polytechnique says about half the current faculty and staff members were on the campus in 1989. It is prepared to help with any psychological effects on them from the movie’s release.

There was no public inquiry into the violence after the shootings because the government felt such an investigation would cause too much pain, so unresolved issues persist in many people’s minds.

Critics are divided about the film. One, The Gazette’s Brendan Kelly, walked out of a preview predicting a flop. Another, LaPresse’s Nathalie Petrowski, gave it four stars and called it “a terrible beautiful film” when she and Mr. Kelly discussed their views yesterday on CBC radio.

The massacre led to a tightening of gun control in Canada. A review of the police response led to better procedures that were credited with reducing casualties three years ago in a shooting at Dawson College.

The film opens in both French and English versions on Friday in Quebec, and sometime later in the rest of the country. —Karen Birchard