Release date: October 29th, 2012
Running time: 127 minutes
Country of origin: France
Original language French with English subtitles
Writer: Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot
Cast: Joeystarr, Marina Foïs, Frédéric Pierrot, Maïwenn
Fly-the-wall, or perhaps more fittingly, fly-in-the-back-seat, real-life cop shows have been a source of popular entertainment for a few decades now. Whether it’s participating in a high speed chase as an American squad car pursues criminals across the badlands or observing the officers in a British city sweeping the pavements clean in the early hours of a Sunday morning, we all get sucked into these programs when we accidentally land on them whilst channel surfing. We plead innocence and deny all charges but we’re all guilty of it at some point.
This fascination’s naturally filtered through to our drama shows becoming more and more realistic to give us a similar hit and TV and film has become increasingly interested in taking a look at the procedural elements of law enforcement, and what it’s like to be a police officer, rather than just shootouts and chases. Despite our prolonged exposure to such content, there are some crimes which are still incredibly difficult to see portrayed on screen and child abuse is one of these. Perhaps this is due to a concern that this might be exploiting the subject, or more likely that the crime’s felt to be so abhorrent, it just makes us feel uncomfortable.
Well, prepare to feel discomfort as French police procedural, Polisse follows an un-stated period (a few months, maybe) in the company a Child Protection Unit in Paris and the officers it’s comprised of. There’s no overarching plot as such; the film’s a selection of sequences from a variety of cases all at different stages of completion. We’re offered something of a patchwork fly-on the-wall look at what life’s like for the members of this particular CPU unit, both in their personal lives, the professional ones and how the two are intrinsically linked – especially given the nature of their profession.
The film’s based upon time the writer and director, Maïwenn, spent with a CPU unit; it’s stated the cases seen here are based on things she experienced during this period. Naturally, the different circumstances which the film throws at us, and seeing the effect their day job has on the officers, is where the viewing can become less pleasant. We endure a whole variety of different kinds of child abuse ranging from a mother shaking a baby to stop it crying, to a Muslim man forcing his daughter into marriage, to paedophilia. None of this is easy to watch, not least because the director’s major strength is in eliciting amazingly naturalistic performances from almost everyone involved. If you didn’t know these guys were actors, you might not believe it. French rapper Joeystar, playing Fred, stands out as the closest thing the film has to a lead, but the cast’s uniformly strong.
Regrettably, there are two areas in which Maïwenn doesn’t excel as director; tone and structure. The problems I have with both may well be personal, and I can entirely see why she has made the choices she has, but both stopped the film working for me in the way it might have done otherwise.
The tonal shifts are, to understate the issue, wild. This is because, in an attempt to give us a break from the unrelenting “miserablism” (coined by Fred), she injects moments of humour that are often misjudged. Sometimes this is done more as a coping mechanism for the characters in a scene, exemplified by the fits of hysterics during an interview regarding a rape charge. Other times, it’s just jarring and feels entirely inappropriate. This may not be an issue for all who watch the film, but I certainly found it difficult.
The structure’s also problematic in that it stops the film having any cinematic heft or narrative drive. There’s no through line either in terms of the characters behaviour, development, or plot. What we see is a massive cast of characters, none of whom have enough time given to their complex personal lives, investigating a series of unconnected and unresolved cases of child abuse. The attempt to combine all these may be found in Maïwenn’s casting of herself as a photographer attached to the unit (much like her real life role) but we don’t see the film through her eyes and so she actually feels rather superfluous. The film ends up feeling like very disjointed and more like a long-running TV show which has been brutally hacked into a two hour movie. All plot threads which are started end abruptly and some of them seem utterly ludicrous included a completely misjudged ending.
So the faults may suggest a need to have done a fair bit of work on the screenplay, but there’s a lot that’s good about Polisse. The scenes in themselves are very well managed and, for the most part, the characters are utterly believable while the subject’s handled in the way it should be. The film shows a great deal of promise in its director and those looking for a gritty über-realistic police procedural could do worse than checking this out.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.