French actress turned director Maïwenn’s socially-minded film POLISSE is a dramatically charged ensemble portrait of the French police, a collage of characters, narratives, and tones centered on a dozen men and women who work for the Child Protection Unit in Paris. It is packed with raw, visceral performances from an accomplished cast.This raucous, close-knit group, which goes after molesters and abusive parents, and finds shelters for unwanted children, is constantly in action. Its emotionally grueling work seeps into its members’ often-chaotic home lives. POLISSE was a winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and one of the most successful films of 2011 in France, POLISSE was nominated for 13 Cesar Awards including Best Film, Director and 6 individual acting nominations for its phenomenal ensemble cast.
Though it is a fictional feature (written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot), “Polisse” feels less dramatized than witnessed. It has a rough, ragged narrative structure and a correspondingly hectic visual style. It plows through some harsh, horrifying realities with unflinching sobriety, concerned less with social problems than with facts and in the process illuminates French society with a toughness and fidelity that few other recent movies have dared. The film uses actual events from the files of a real-life police unit, and the gritty realism is evident throughout the film. It aims for a picture of the underbelly of life that is at once broad and biting, and it is successful most the time. Though the cases we see – molestation, exploitation, heartbreaking poverty – are gripping, the main focus of this drama is the officers themselves.
Maïwenn has gathered an accomplished ensemble cast of French actors—including Karin Viard, Marina Foïs, co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and rapper-turned-actor Joeystarr—who convey the emotional strain of the unit’s work with gritty realism (the director herself plays the role of a photographer embedded within the unit). Poliss covers much ground, and even with its loose threads and frenzied structure, it convincingly jumps from laughter to tears and back again, never losing sight of the brutal realities at its core.
The cases these officers deal with — parents who sexually abuse their children or force them to commit crimes; children who do terrible harm to themselves and one another — routinely expose the foulest aspects of human nature. The members of the Child Protection Unit must also contend with bureaucratic intransigence, petty corruption and perpetual competition for scarce resources. And also, once they leave work, with messy marriages, tumultuous friendships and the ordinary pains of adulthood.
One of the themes of “Polisse” is the fundamental benevolence of the state, an idea alien to American viewers. The idealism that Maïwenn detects beneath the grit is nonetheless disarming. Instead of overt displays of heroism or resistance, there are the satisfactions and frustrations of difficult labor in a righteous cause.
Another theme, one that emerges through scenes that are especially painful for being utterly matter of fact, is the pervasiveness of violence, sexual and otherwise, against girls. An officer is so spooked by cases of incest and molestation that he has difficulty giving his own young daughter a bath. One of his colleagues, a woman from a Muslim background, explodes in rage at a smug imam who plans to marry off his underage daughter. An upper-class father, arrested for raping his daughter, is almost boastful about what he has done. There are boys who suffer too, but “Polisse” makes a devastating, empirical argument that female children are especially vulnerable.
From its opening scene, in which a little girl tells one of the officers, Chrys (Karole Rocher), that her father sometimes “scratches her butt,” the film presents the difficulties in distinguishing truth from speculation in child sex abuse cases, especially when kids and parents offer conflicting testimonies, or take issue with police workers poking into their private lives. Maiwenn and co-writer-star Emmanuelle Bercot insert a number of such interrogations throughout the story, and they run the gamut from disturbing to hilarious to downright tragic, especially in one emotional wallop of a sequence where a little boy is separated from a mother who can’t provide him adequate shelter.That moment occurs about midway through the movie, and that fact that it runs on for longer than expected is revealing of Maiwenn’s approach to such uneasy material. Instead of playing scenes safely via evocative cutaways or trying to up the cute factor whenever a kid appears on screen, she allows – like fellow French directors Abdellatif Kechiche or the late Maurice Pialat – for the intensity of the situation to take over in all its rawness. Another prime example is a late scene between two officers and sometime buddies, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois), whose explosive office shouting match is something to behold.Very much like David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series, Poliss concentrates on the strain the job puts on policemen and women who deal day in day out with hard knocks cases and bureaucratic pigeonholing, and how that affects their generally chaotic home lives. In fact, all of them, including Melissa (Maiwenn), the timid photographer who’s been commissioned by the Interior Ministry to document the unit’s activities, are undergoing either a divorce, a separation, or are defiantly and unhappily single.
While these cops work very hard to mend other peoples’ nightmares, they are unable, through the sheer exhaustion of their métier, to take care of themselves, relying on each other for all kinds of support, friendship, or, in a few instances, love.Their work hard, play hard attitude is best exemplified by Fred (Joeystarr), a wiry cop whose estrangement from his own daughter makes him take every case to heart, putting him increasingly at odds with a superior (Frederic Pierrot) who caves in too easily to the power above.
The film is designed to look as if it were haphazardly put together, with quick editing, a huge load of characters, and cases that weave in and out without resolution. At times, this style is quite immersive. If the film suffers from anything, its still the writers’ choice to shove in so many plots, subplots, and episodes within its limited running time, and the finale especially takes a turn that doesn’t seem warranted by what preceded it. Because we haven’t had much chance to live with her story, her end feels inexplicable. On the other hand, the film’s style doesn’t allow scenes and characters to unfold in anything like real time or even narrative time, causing an abruptness that undermines the storytelling. This is most evident in the ending, when an officer suddenly commits suicide.
Despite these, Polisse is a powerful document of how people deal with impossible situations. It is a brilliant example of how to show the strengths of an ensemble cast. It sustains the feeling of never-ending struggle that clearly hounds its characters, yet manages to do so without losing a certain cigarette-smoking, meal-enjoying languidness that seems unmistakably French.Whether performances were improvised or not is unclear, but they’re reigned in enough to feel polished and real. Ditto for the tech, which feels free and un-mannered as it captures the grittier neighborhoods of northeast Paris, though it never drops to the handheld quirks of many a young director.
“Polisse” feels a bit like a season of television compressed into a little more than two hours. (This theatrical cut was reportedly culled from nearly 150 hours of footage.) The action also veers now and then into melodramatic overstatement, in particular toward the end. But the messiness of the film seems appropriate to its subject, which is the attempt to bring at least a measure of order — and even a touch of grace — to a chaotic and frequently ugly reality.
POLISSE: Directed by Maïwenn; written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot; director of photography, Pierre Aïm; edited by Laure Gardette and Yann Dedet; music by Stephen Warbeck; production design by Nicolas de Boiscuille; costumes by Marité Coutard; produced by Alain Attal; released by Sundance Selects. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Karin Viard (Nadine), Joeystarr (Fred), Marina Foïs (Iris), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Mathieu), Maïwenn (Melissa), Karole Rocher (Chrys), Emmanuelle Bercot (Sue Ellen), Frédéric Pierrot (Balloo), Arnaud Henriet (Bamako), Naidra Ayadi (Nora) and Jérémie Elkaïm (Gabriel).