This Side-by-Side Comparison of 'Polytechnique' Shows How Timing Can Change a Scene
Some say that a film is really made in the editing room, and to a certain degree, they're right.
Two different editors with different tastes and sensibilities could take the same raw footage, cut it, and come out with completely different films. This is because editing, like cinematography and screenwriting, has its own language. You can elicit specific emotions based on where you make your edits, where you place them, and how long a shot is. This is demonstrated effectively in Fandor video essayist Kevin B. Lee's video essay highlighting the editing in Denis Villeneuve's film Polytechnique.
For Polytechnique, Villeneuve filmed important scenes from several points of view, so there are multiple versions of these scenes that unfold in the film. Kevin synchs up a few of these scenes to reveal how the different approach to editing changes the way the audience responds to them emotionally.
If you've never seen the film, here's just a little backstory to put the editing into perspective. Villeneuve is known for making films that center on human sorrow and pain and death, or as Kevin eloquently puts it, "investigating life-and-death tragedies by counterpoising his characters’ anguish with a coolly analytical staging of their circumstances." Polytechnique is no different. It's a retelling of the "Montreal Massacre", in which 14 female engineering students were murdered by a male gunman that rampaged through École Polytechnique in 1989. The film doesn't follow a linear timeline, rather it jumps back and forth through time, which is why it could've been easy to miss the ways the same scenes were edited differently.
So, what do the different edits mean? What emotions were the filmmakers trying to evoke? Obviously this may all be conjecture, but, for example, take the scene in which the gunman enters the classroom -- version one is longer and has a lot of coverage, while version two is shorter and is one continuous take. In my opinion, version one, which occurs 20 minutes earlier in the film, is there as a setup piece. Villeneuve has introduced us to a new scenario -- a gunman entering a classroom, firing his gun, and ordering the men to leave -- this would be the scene to establish tone, atmosphere, and tension. Since it's our first time watching this scene, it makes sense that the filmmakers wanted to take their time letting it unfold.
The second version, however, goes at a faster pace, because we already know what this scene's about. We know the gunman is going to tell the guys to leave. We know that the last guy to leave, Jean-François, has a real problem doing so. However, we don't know that this scene will be seen through the eyes of one of the female students, Valerie. This continuous shot puts us right there in the room; it creates a new kind of tension. Instead of being anxious over not knowing what's going to happen next, we're anxious because we feel as though we're in mortal danger. Having the scene run faster doesn't give us the reprieve we want from the immediate threat we feel from the gunman. Instead, it comes at us like a barrage of bullets -- his orders, the screeching of the chairs, the constant movement of the camera. We can't rest. We can't hide. We can't escape.