Polisse – Film Review

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.
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