A film by Maïwenn
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally published on May 18, 2012 on the website of The National Board of Review
The novel spelling of the word Polisse, the new film by actress/director Maïwenn (The Actress’ Ball), appears in the opening credits as though scrawled in a child’s hand with crayons. Which is appropriate for a film inspired by the French CPU (Child Protection Unit) – a branch of the police force which investigates child abuse (and worse). The film is remarkable on many levels, taking on a television police/detective show format and inverting it in a compelling way. Convention dictates an investigation that follows only a few storylines (usually one central story and one or two tangential ones). The structure will come from the interaction between the investigators and the suspects, culminating in the inevitable collision of the two forces. Maïwenn and her cowriter Emmanuelle Bercot have come up with an approach that feels realistic in a documentary way and exciting in terms of character development – and is closer in spirit to war films such as Full Metal Jacket and The Thin Red Line than the police genre. In Polisse viewers are immersed into the lives of a team of professionals and follow them, individually and as a group, as they struggle with the daily grind of child abuse cases – and confront the emotional and psychological toll it takes.
The investigators are individualized and full of interesting character traits (and flaws). They are a mix of men and women, each with outgoing personalities and passionate attachments to their work. Iris, a natural leader (played by Marina Foïs) is obsessed with her weight, demanding of her husband for a child, and naturally controlling of those around her. Nadine, played by Karin Viard, is caught on the short end of a bad marriage and also enmeshed in Iris’s influence. Fred, (played by Joey Starr, who has worked previously with Maïwenn), is a strong Alpha type with a young daughter, a failed marriage, and an initial dislike and inevitable attraction to Melissa (played by Maïwenn). Emmanuelle Bercot plays Chrys, a tough professional who also happens to be a lesbian. The power of the film comes from the strength of the ensemble – they work hard, with respect and professionalism, and play hard as well.
The narrative is bolstered by the inclusion of Melissa, a photographer who is embedded into the unit by her well-connected former husband. She is tall and beautiful in a Bianca Jagger sort of way but hides her elegance behind tied up hair and black oversized Clark Kent style glasses. She is a mousy time bomb ready to go off, whether through the effect of her beauty or her relentless documentation of the investigative unit.
The cases taken on by the CPU are especially troubling because they involve children placed in dangerous and threatening situations, often involving relatives and family friends. We meet children who suffer at the hands of bad mothers (one woman is taken in when she is caught violently shaking her baby, only to reveal that she is casually molesting her young son), upper class fathers (a young girl is being abused by her father, who feels immune to prosecution because of his connections), unfortunate immigrant mothers (a woman struggles with the reality that she must surrender her son for financial reasons), wicked grandfathers, and even their own adolescent peers. The effect on the investigators – and on the audience – is cumulative and deep.
Polisse is a strong and challenging film brought to life by two women – director/writer Maïwenn and co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot, who also give engaging performances as central characters in the story. The acting throughout is natural and energetic. Heightened by the use of two and sometimes three digital cameras, Polisse has a documentary/fly on the wall feeling. It also one of the better edited films of the year, reminiscent of the taught, dynamic storytelling of last year’s Point Blank. With multiple cameras covering nearly every scene the filmmakers – to their great credit – resist the television inspired “shaky cam” effect (“Hey, look at my hand held camera…did you notice?”) By not calling attention to itself, the camera work allows for seamless construction of the scenes while also taking full advantage of the multiple angles. Even more impressive is the judicious use of pacing. As the story propels forward the cuts between each scene become tighter and tighter. Nonessential time is cut to the bone – an assignment comes into the office and the team, as though teleported, is on the case. This momentum is only broken when government bureaucracy gets in the way. When a call comes in about a deranged woman who has kidnapped a child the unit mobilizes with military precision – guns are packed, small talk ends, the scene cuts from the investigators rushing into the hallway then bursting into the street – only to find they are one car short. Continuing a running storyline the unit chief confronts his superior and discovers that the narcotics division has once again pulled rank. One of the most powerful moments in the film is also a break in the rapid pace – it involves Fred’s reaction to the abandonment of a young African boy by a mother who clearly loves him. The camera lingers on the tough investigator as he holds the crying child in his arms, refusing to cut away, forcing the viewer to share the bitter moment. It’s a turning point for Fred, the result of everything that has led to it, the springboard to everything that will follow.
Despite a tag line that suggests a conventional narrative approach (“A journalist covering police assigned to a juvenile division enters an affair with one of her subjects”) Polisse is anything but. It is energetic without being frantic and tough without being macho. Like life it has sad and even heartbreaking moments (the subject matter virtually guarantees it) but the film can also he surprisingly light and humorous. Two scenes in particular stand out. The first involves a young French African girl who’s world view might as well be from Mars based on the jaw dropping effect it has on the investigators. The other can only be described as one of the funniest (and most disturbing) scenes involving cell phones, oral sex, and children ever presented on screen. It is an uneasy release for the characters and audience alike, the result of a wonderfully paced script that knows how and when to let off steam.