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P olytechnique opens with the startling sound of gunshots. We don't yet know their source, but we see their target - two female engineering students working at photocopy machines. The women clutch at their wounds, stunned, uncomprehending.

The burst of violence should hardly come as a shock. This is, after all, a movie about the 1989 shooting rampage at Montreal's École Polytechnique. Nearly 20 years on, the brutal images have lost none of their power to disturb.

Acclaimed Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is the first to tackle the massacre of 14 women at the Montreal engineering school in a feature film - and its arrival across Quebec this Friday is stirring up a mix of anticipation and unease.

Many have not forgotten the horrific sights of that cold December in Montreal: the ambulance workers frantically loading stretchers, the mass funerals, the face of a killer who spewed venom about "feminists." An entire country watched in horror.

Some of the victims' families chose not to attend private pre-release screenings of the film; the thought of returning to that dark place was simply too difficult.

"They still feel fragile and don't want to repeat the experience. They didn't want to expose themselves to something so painful," explained Sylvie Haviernick, whose younger sister, Maud, was killed at the Polytechnique.

The trauma also still lingers among the engineering school's staff. The Polytechnique trained department heads this week to be on the lookout for signs of moroseness among staff when the movie opens. Nearly half of the 300 professors and other employees worked at the school in 1989.

"Everyone remembers where they were at the moment of the drama. Imagine what it's like within the walls of our school," said spokeswoman Chantal Cantin, who was one of eight school staffers to see the movie at a private

screening. "It's still very, very fragile."

The $6-million movie, made with the help of $3.1-million in funding from Telefilm Canada, has also generated an emotional debate. Are the filmmakers picking at a scab, or offering up a vehicle for collective recovery? Should the tragedy be used as the subject of a movie for commercial release?

And, apart from the moral concerns, there's the question most crucial for the filmmakers: Will audiences want to go to see it?

For Villeneuve, the time to tackle the subject was overdue.

"For a society to grow up and become adult, it has to explore its shadows," said Villeneuve, whose last feature was the award-winning Maelström. "I wanted to get to the heart of it. I wanted to explore the fear and rage that exist in men."

Villeneuve's film tells the story of the tragedy through the eyes of students, and captures the ordinariness of the fateful day about to be destroyed. The kids are cramming for end-of-term exams and giving class presentations.

Actor Maxim Gaudette's depiction of gunman Marc Lépine - whose name is never uttered in the film - is a portrait of vacant-eyed alienation and nihilistic rage. The 76-minute film is shot in black and white, an attempt to put a distance between the viewer and the bloodshed, Villeneuve said.

"Yes, it's a violent film," Villeneuve said. "But mostly psychologically. I wanted to make a film that would be watchable, digestible, not a turnoff."

Still, the action is sometimes agonizing, with viewers witnessing the unspooling of a tragedy they are helpless to stop.

A certain amount of trauma was present on the set as well. The scene in which the killer enters a classroom, separates the men and women, and then shoots the women execution-style left some of the actresses in tears.

The film doesn't confine itself to the victims who fell to the gunman's bullets on Dec. 6. Before the closing credits, dedications appear on screen in memory of the Polytechnique's victims; after the 14 women comes the name Sarto Blais. Blais was a student at the Polytechnique who witnessed the shootings and grew so despondent that he hanged himself eight months later.

"He is one of the indirect victims of the drama," Villeneuve said. "I see this movie as a war movie. There are a lot of direct victims in a war, but the waves of violence touch everyone."

The creators also take on the delicate question of the responsibility of the male students on campus, who were criticized for not stopping the gunman. (In an interview immediately after the event, a reporter asked one of them why they "abandoned" the women.) In the film, the Jean-François character, played by Sébastien Huberdeau, is confronted with the moral decisions of saving himself or saving the women.

But remember these were relatively innocent days before the tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech and Dawson College, the filmmakers are careful to remind viewers, when the arrival of an armed gunman on campus was almost unthinkable.

"I wanted to absolve the men," Villeneuve said. "Society condemned them. People were really tough on them. But they were 20 years old. [When the shooter arrived] it was as if an alien had landed."

Blogs and online discussions are already aflame with disputes about the film; some fault the makers for exploiting the tragedy, while others revive the debate over whether the killer was an anomalous madman, or a vessel for collective misogyny.

Given the touchiness of the subject, the promotion and marketing of Polytechnique has been muted. The makers kept a lid on publicity and enforced a closed set; they were also careful to involve those touched by the tragedy from the outset.

Families of the 14 women were not consulted on the content (though many witnesses, police officers and others were interviewed), but were offered private pre-release screenings. So was Monique Lépine, the mother of the killer, who came out with her own book last year.

Haviernick, who had headed the Dec. 6 victims' foundation for several years, says no families opposed the making of the movie. The events are public, she says, and the families recognize the tragedy doesn't belong to them.

When the film's trailer became available online in December, Haviernick watched it over and over on her home computer. It gave her chills, she said, but she felt it was well done.

"It's not an entertaining subject. But since when do films have to entertain us?" she asked. "When they make movies about the Holocaust, it is meant to be entertaining?

"History's great wars, tragic events like 9/11 - you don't stop directors and creators from taking them on."

Vanasse ( Ma fille, mon ange; October 1970) portrays Valérie who, like the character of Jean-François, is a composite of several female students. Her character is struggling with being a young female engineering student trying to break into a man's field. Vanasse was only six years old at the time of the tragedy, and felt compelled to present it to a new generation.

But she was shocked, when the film was first announced in 2005, to be berated on open-line shows and told to leave the subject alone.

"It surprises me that we still have this malaise, that as a society we're afraid to revisit it," she said. "We shouldn't be ashamed. It happened chez nous but we shouldn't carry the blame."

Polytechnique was shot simultaneously in English and French and both versions will be released Friday in Quebec. No release date has been set for the rest of Canada.