by GREG KING
Polisse is a sprawling but gripping and gritty French drama that follows a year in the lives of officers with the Child Protection Unit of the Paris police. This is the unit that deals with crimes involving children and crimes against children, child molesters, suspected paedophiles, underage pickpockets, abusive parents, and the excesses of teenage sexuality in a permissive society. It is often demanding draining and heartbreaking work, as they witness some of the worst depravations in society. The horrors they deal with take their toll, both personally and professionally. Their personal lives are a mess.
Polisse is the new film from actress turned director Maiwenn Le Besco, who has appeared in films like Alexandre Aja’s thriller Haute Tension, etc. With the use of hand held cameras she brings a kinetic energy and a sense of urgency to the material. It also lends a documentary-like feel to the action.
While Maiwenn was in Sydney to attend the recent Sydney Film Festival I had the opportunity to talk to her about the film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year and which has been received well critically around the world. Some of the interview is translated through an interpreter, and the language barrier does lead to a few misinterpretations and misunderstandings that require explanations. For example, when I try to praise the film’s gritty realism and documentary-like feel, she asks: “Why do you say that? This is a fiction movie, not a documentary. It has actors and everything?”
There are sometimes areas that publicists warn are no-go areas before an interview, but there were no such warnings before I spoke to the director, who gets a bit prickly when asked about Luc Besson. Maiwenn appeared in a couple of his movies, like The Professional and The Fifth Element, and she had a relationship with him when she was only 16. About six years ago she decided that she wanted to be a director of her own films. Maiwenn admits to having been largely inspired by the films of French director Maurice Pialat and even British auteur Ken Loach. When I ask her if Besson had also been an influence on her career she replies somewhat tersely: “None at all!” You can almost feel the frost in her voice.
We enter safer ground when I talk about the film itself and the casting. “Most of the time I am writing with the actors in mind,” she explains. “So most of the casting has been done even before the writing, it was in my head. I used to make movies with Karin Viard and Emmannuelle Bercot before, so I knew them very well.” Although Maiwenn says that working with people she is familiar with is not important it helps the filmmaking process. “It’s easier for me because I know them and they know how I’m working. So we don’t have to go through the process of learning to know each other.”
With its heady mix of black humour, police procedural, tired melodrama and action, Polisse sometimes comes across like a frenetic cross between The Wire and Law & Order: SVU. However, Maiwenn says that she was not inspired by these tv shows at all. Rather, the inspiration came from a documentary she saw on French tv about a policeman who was taking care of children and was deeply affected by his job.
Maiwenn spent some nine months writing the script with help from Bercot. She also spent some time embedded in the CPU observing their methods and taking notes on some of their cases to add authenticity to the narrative. She drew on these real life cases for inspiration. The members of this specialist unit often seek catharsis for their stress through drink, casual sex and inappropriate black humour. Maiwenn avoids sentimentality, and portrays the cops as flawed humans – compassionate, yet short-tempered, insecure, lonely, disllusionede, and frustrated.
And that is where some of the black humour comes from, especially in the scene when the frustrated detectives make fun of a teenager who says she was forced to take part in sex acts to recover her stoeln mobile phone. “That scene is the reality,” she defends its humour. “In reality the scene was lighter, so I pushed the idea a little further. But I’ve seen many, many things like that in reality. And it was important for me to show the cops when it becomes too much for them and they cannot deal with it. They are laughing at one of the victims, because they are used to being in front of victims all day long. They have to be on the edge, you know. I pushed this idea further to make it really funny, and even make it uncomfortable for the audience.”
Maiwenn only finished work on the film a couple of weeks before it was invited into the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened as part of the official competition. “It was magical,” she recalls of the whole experience. “When I knew I was selected I was so shocked, I was spending three weeks going on the Internet in cafes to make sure they were not changing their minds. I was shocked, but also happy. And when I arrived at Cannes it was so exciting, even if people were telling me” ‘Be careful! Cannes could be a nightmare.’ But I said to myself, even if it is a nightmare, and even if the jury does not like the movie it is a great honour to be in the Cannes Film Festival. So even if I got bad paper (press reviews) I was so proud just to be in the middle of Almodovar, Lars Von Trier, and Terrence Malick. I was the youngest of the selection, and it was an honour to be there.”
After it was released in France in October 2011 Polisse went on to become the third most successful film at the box office for the year. Maiwenn admits that she is already thinking about her next project, but says that it will probably be two years before it is completed. “The time that I have to write it and shoot it and edit it,” she explains. “Some directors are faster than me, I’m quite slow. I like to take my time to think about it. I don’t want to go too fast. I think it’s like making a baby, you have to take your time.”
Polisse is released nationally on June 28.