Reviewed by GREG KING
Stars: Karin Viard, Marina Fois, Joey Starr, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Maiwenn, Karole Rocher, Emmanuelle Bercot, Frederic Pierrot, Arnaud Henriet, Jeremie Elkaim, Ricardo Scamarcio. Sandrine Kiberlain, Naidra Ayadi, Vladimir Yordanoff, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing
This sprawling, but gripping and gritty French drama 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 and emotionally draining work, as they witness some of the worst depravations in society. The horrors they experience on a daily basis take their toll, both personally and professionally. Their personal lives are a mess, and tensions and jealousies amongst the tight-knit group eventually surface.
The members of this specialist unit seek catharsis and relief from their stress through drink, casual sex, and inappropriate black humour. One scene has the cops making fun of a naïve young girl who says that she was forced to perform sexual favours in order to retrieve her stolen mobile phone. To some this may seem callous and inappropriate, but it is simply their coping mechanism after dealing with heartbreak and wanton brutality.
Actress, co-writer and director Maiwenn Le Besco, who operates professionally under the moniker Maiwenn, spent some time thoroughly researching the background of the unit to ensure authenticity. She even spent several months embedded in the unit, observing their methods, and she drew upon her experiences to shape the script. Much of the material here is based on actual cases, and the film is not afraid to tackle the ugliness of their work. There are many strong and unsettling moments interspersed throughout the film, which is episodic in structure and occasionally melodramatic in nature.
With its heady mix of black humour, gritty police procedural, melodrama, raw power and action, Polisse sometimes comes across as a pilot for a television series about the workings of the CPU, sort of like a frenetic cross between The Wire and Law & Order: SVU. The documentary-like air of realism is further heightened through rapid cutting between scenes and overlapping narratives. With the collaboration of her regular cinematographer Pierre Aim, Maiwenn brings a documentary-like verite to the material, through use of hand held cameras, which lends a kinetic energy and sense of urgency to the film.
Maiwenn avoids sentimentality, and portrays the cops as flawed humans – compassionate, short-tempered, insecure, lonely, disillusioned and often frustrated by the demands of their jobs and dealing with the bureaucracy.
Maiwenn herself plays Melissa, a photographer assigned by the Ministry of the Interior to record the activities of the unit. She is embedded into the group and becomes swept up in their activities. She loses her objectivity, and also begins a relationship with Fred (rapper turned actor Joey Starr), the hot headed detective who is often at loggerheads with the head of the unit.
Maiwenn draws natural performances from an excellent ensemble cast who bring the characters to life. The strong cast includes Karin Viard (who has appeared in all three of Maiwenn’s features as a director), Marina Fois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Jeremie Elkaim (from the recent drama Declaration Of War, etc), and hunky Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio (My Brother Is An Only Child, etc). Some of the characters are more fully developed than others, which creates something of an imbalance in the mix.
This bold and unflinching, tough drama is hard to forget. Polisse deservingly won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year.