After a release in Quebec in February 2009, it was featured in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It received numerous honours, including nine Genie Awards, notably Best Motion Picture.
During a class at an engineering school, a young man enters the classroom with a rifle. He orders the men to leave and the women to stay. They comply after he shoots into the ceiling to show that he is serious. He tells the women that he hates feminists. Although the women deny being feminists, he shoots at them, killing some and wounding others. He then moves through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women. Once finished, he shoots himself with his own weapon.
One of the male students is Jean-François, who was ordered to leave the classroom. He does not merely flee, as he returns to try to stop the killer and/or help the victims. Valérie and Stéphanie, two surviving women, play dead thinking the killer has returned, and Stephanie later dies of her injuries.
Some time after the massacre, Jean-François, feeling guilty for complying with the order to leave the classroom and abandoning the women, commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Valérie, wearing the Iron Ring, the professional ring of Canadian engineers, learns she is pregnant, planning to tell a potential son to be loving, or a potential daughter that the world belongs to her.Maxim Gaudette as "The Killer" (Marc Lépine)
Sébastien Huberdeau as Jean-François
Karine Vanasse as Valérie
The rest of the cast listed alphabetically:
Karine Vanasse, who played Valérie, helped produce Polytechnique, and wanted to make a film about the massacre for years. She helped secure director Denis Villeneuve for the film, who at the time was respected for making the 2000 film Maelström. Despite the sensitivity to the incident in Quebec, Villeneuve asserted it was not too soon for a film, and that there was an important conversation to be had.
Vanasse researched by speaking to the families of women killed in École Polytechnique de Montréal. In the film, one of the women tells The Killer that the students are not feminists, with Vanasse explaining, "One of the women who was there told me that it was the first time in her life that she had to confront her femininity head on".
École Polytechnique de Montréal gave the filmmakers the right to use the campus as a location, but Villeneuve opted against filming there to be respectful. The film was shot at Cégep de Maisonneuve and Collège Ahuntsic as well as Griffintown and Westmount. Villeneuve shot the film in black and white, so as to avoid the presence of blood on screen.
There were two versions of the film produced, one in English and one in French. The director Denis Villeneuve hoped the film would enter into the English-Canadian market, as well as the U.S. one. Villeneuve said the subject matter was challenging for the cast and crew to work with.
Polytechnique was screened at the Directors' Fortnight at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival on 17 May. It was also featured in festivals in London, Spain and Namur in fall 2009.
The film was released on 6 February 2009, in Quebec, and on 20 March 2009, in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Its release sparked controversy in Quebec and across Canada for its depiction of real life events involving the murder of unarmed students. The film was shown in 45 theatres in Quebec. By August 2009, the distributor Remstar had sold screening rights to around 12 countries.
Alliance Films and Remstar released the film on DVD and Blu-ray in February 2009, along with French language documentary films on the real massacre. It was showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in summer 2011.
The film grossed $326,000 in Quebec cinemas during its opening weekend, ranking first at the Quebec box office. By August 2009, it grossed $1.6 million. In English Canadian areas, it grossed $100,000. It was considered a financial hit in Quebec.
The film has received mostly positive reviews from film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 85% of professional critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7/10. In Canada, Peter Howell of the Toronto Star gave the film three and a half stars out of four, stating "Polytechnique makes no judgments, offers no panaceas. It shows the violence, faithfully recreating the historical record, but it doesn't wallow in it. Pierre Gill's brilliant monochrome lensing minimizes the effect of the blood. [...] It stands as a work of art, summoning unspoken thoughts the way Picasso's war abstraction Guernica does in a scene of contemplation with Jean-François." Katherine Monk of Canwest News Services gave the film four stars out of five; "The paradox may sound grotesque, but it must be stated loud and clear: Denis Villeneuve and the cast of Polytechnique have transformed the tragedy of the Montreal Massacre into a work of profound beauty."
Numerous critics compared Polytechnique, favorably or unfavorably, to Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or winning 2003 film Elephant. In The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that like Villeneuve's later film Incendies, Polytechnique was a statement on decency being more powerful than savagery, and benefited from a rational look on an extreme matter. In Variety, Rob Nelson compared it unfavourably to Halloween (1978) and other violent horror films, but gave it marks for addressing the misogyny of the crime. Ray Bennett criticized the film in The Hollywood Reporter for not examining the psychology of The Killer, and could not understand why the characters did not pull the fire alarm. Denis Seguin of Screen Daily gave the film a favourable review, writing "Polytechnique is a formalist interpretation of an atrocity, with a cool perspective on the events and much for audiences to read between the frames as the film moves back and forth through time." Time Out gave it four stars, saying it avoided tabloid journalism and foreshadowed the message of forgiveness in the face of horror in Incendies.
In presenting the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award to Polytechnique in January 2010, Toronto Film Critics Association president Brian D. Johnson called it a "film of astonishing courage."