The ensemble cop drama Polisse, the third film by French director Maïwenn, finally arrives in the US a year after its Cannes debut (and Jury Prize win). She was inspired to make the film after watching a documentary on officers in the Parisian Child Protection Unit (CPU), the branch of the police that deals with child and teen abuse. It’s worth noting that Maïwenn did her own first-hand research, interning with a police unit herself before crafting the script with writer Emmanuelle Bercot (who also plays an officer in the film). Even so, the film feels loose and improvisatory, its sequences linked mainly by the resurfacing cast of characters whose faces and back-stories we slowly come to recognize. Maïwenn’s approach to this squeamish subject is unsentimental, the dialogue and camera driven by a restless energy. For most of its two-plus hours, Polisse is loud and boisterous, with emotions that run both hot and cold, and scenes that click by at a rapid pace. Given the inherent high stakes, Maïwenn doesn’t overplay her hand, but allows certain moments their peak of humor or despair. Sharply observed and compassionate, Polisse highlights the humanity of its protectors, perpetrators, and victims.
The opening scene of Polisse sets the tone for the rest of the film. Chrys (Karole Rocher) talks to a young girl, trying to determine whether or not the girl’s father is abusing her. It’s the most intimate of procedural routines, one we will see repeated with other supposed victims again. The officers modulate their tone for the accused, probing with harsh quickness that’s surprisingly effective. On both sides their main tool is language, and they combat its frustrating ambiguity with direct, almost clinical questions. Maïwenn’s interest in realism and documentary film is apparent not only in the fluid, handheld camerawork, but also in the way she threads the details of the officers’ jobs into the film’s narrative. As in any bureaucracy, resources are contested and scarce, and slogging through caseloads doesn’t allow time — or even much finesse — for psychological counseling. The officers try to be kind, but I was surprised by the brusque, straightforward, almost humiliating way they handle cases. Questioning is conducted in open rooms crowded with desks, with other officers in earshot. We occasionally see the lead-up to an accusation, but never the aftermath, a choice Maïwenn made deliberately to mirror the intense but limited involvement the CPU officers have with their cases.
The team of CPU officers the film follows run the gamut in terms of gender and ethnicity but all speak in a rough, slangy vernacular. The job seems to require a social, incisive instinct — a kind of bullshit radar — that’s also on display in the joking, libidinous banter they share over meals and coffee breaks. In contrast, Maïwenn’s own character is a more spectral presence in Polisse. She plays Melissa, a photographer on assignment to document the unit’s work, and is as patrician and reserved as unit members are working-class and expressive. One of the film’s central characters is Fred (played by the rapper Joeystarr), an intimidating and slightly volatile officer who struggles under the burden of what he sees in his work. Rather predictably, Fred and Melissa clash and then connect, finding they are more alike in their empathy than is first apparent.
A good part of the narrative focuses on the officers’ personal lives, on the families and romances they fight to preserve. This is especially difficult for the officers who are parents and whose fears of the worst are made manifest everyday. The violence, sexual abuse, exploitation, and neglect they witness create an emotional fracture, an intense pressure that begs release. They meet up outside of work to drink, play charades, and celebrate birthdays and their rare, small victories. When I saw the film, the audience seemed fully on board: they gasped when a strung-out junkie dropped her infant son, and they laughed, along with the officers, at a teenage girl who trades a blowjob for the return of her stolen cell phone. The officers taunt the ignorant girl; it’s insensitive, but also very funny. Marred worlds have their own internal logic.
Maïwenn clearly has a preference for realism and covers this terrain by relying heavily on documentary techniques. She works with highly trained actors off a precise script, but relies on improvisation and input from CPU officers on set. The film was shot using multiple handheld cameras for each take, a visual choice that fits the story very well. Maïwenn was nothing if not thorough, leaving her editors 150 hours of footage to work with. They’ve shaped an impressive film from that raw material, but most of the credit should go to the director. It takes subtlety and craft to create the cruel, chaotic reality depicted in Polisse.