The first few minutes of Polisse whiz by in a strange blur, flinging the viewer into the middle of one conversation after another, abrupt scenes demarcated by jarring cuts. It’s an approach that seems to be conceived as a primer for the rest of the film, which favors piecemeal anecdotal capsules over a direct narrative, telling the hodgepodge story of a patchwork group of people.
Attention has clearly been paid to subverting the standard expectations of the police story, and director Maïwenn’s third feature is successful in pushing an unusual conceptual angle. It’s immediately clear that, despite being a story about police officers, Polisse is less concerned with the job they share than the qualities that impel them toward it. But beyond the core concept, difficulties emerge. As the film staggers forward, there’s a haphazard feel to the way its scenes are arrayed, like we’re seeing a random smattering of episodes rather than a carefully culled selection. There’s also the fact that many of these dramatic arcs are familiar, even in their abortive state, which gives the sense of a standard workplace drama broken down into pieces.
Polisse does clear its biggest hurdle: the tales of pedophiles and abusers that get alternated with the personal stories of Paris’s Child Protection Unit. The film uses the crimes the group investigates to provide emotional shading rather than dramatic fodder; the brief story of a domineering Muslim father has no weight on its own because it mostly exists to illuminate the psychology of the group’s lone Islamic female. Such a move could have come off as lurid, unbalancing the rest of the story in the service of cheap glimpses at perversion. Instead the endless parade of perpetrators, whose crimes are presented and prosecuted but never resolved, serves as the grist for ongoing dramatic conflicts, explaining and underscoring why these people are so embittered, exhausted, and angry.
There are a lot of faces and personalities to juggle amid this sprawling ensemble of disaffected cops, and it’s a testament to writers Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot that they manage to clearly define so many of these characters. A few get pushed into positions of primacy, and a mostly unnecessary love story is stirred up, but Polisse remains admirably even-handed in spreading around screen time. However, in another example of a soaring conceptual victory marred by an uneven landing, this approach still makes for a lot of half-formed characters. That might still work, but the film hedges its bets by hustling many of the players into familiar arcs (paired off, urged into climactic arguments, or killed off), resulting in a third-act reshuffling that feels like a frantic attempt to snip dangling threads.
The film counteracts its clichés by leaning hard on another one, the old maxim of “If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.” This works well enough in some instances, like the rough banter that enforces the realistic group dynamic, but in other places it gets pushed too far. One scene in particular, where three officers end up laughing in the face of an adolescent rape victim, is destructive, not illuminating enough to excuse these characters’ cruelty. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that it’s more effective when it removes direct encounters between officers and criminals. Because the difficulty of the work is established clearly enough early on, if the repeated scenes stressing this point had been removed, there might have been much-needed space to further develop these characters.
The large, mostly skilled cast remains the film’s greatest untapped asset, because what’s most interesting here is the mental states of these people, and the way that these states relate to their job, which functions as an extension of their tangled lives. On the surface, stopping child abuse seems like the most clear-cut mission imaginable, but like most work it proves astoundingly complicated at a deeper level. These characters hold out the hope that they can be heroes, or even just make some kind of a difference, even though it’s clear that the best they can do is maintain the status quo. Tangled amid lives defined by endless bureaucracy and broken relationships, the hope for better things is both a motivator and a constant source of pain, a scab that none of them can stop picking.
Polisse has been compared to The Wire, but beyond a shared interest in the Sisyphean nature of police work, the two are mostly comparable as inverses of each other. The Wire was about institutional collapse, how broken systems trap individuals within tidal cycles of decay. Polisse is about broken people, using their interactions with damaged institutions as fuel for their own cyclical struggles. In keeping with its focus on form, this is also broken movie, a promising experiment that gets mired in conventional storylines and outcomes.
Winner of the Cannes 2011 Jury Prize and nominated for 15 César Awards (including two wins), child protection police ensemble “Polisse” offers masterful camerawork and acting, pitched at high energy and intense emotion. Actress-writer-director Maiwenn stars in the film as a photographer (above). The French trailer is below; Sundance Selects will release their English-language trailer next week to coincide with the film’s showings at both LA’s ColCoa French film series and the Tribeca Film Festival. The film will open in New York and Los Angeles on May 18, with a national rollout to follow.
This dense film covers an astonishing amount of ground, via multiple cops and cases. It’s like an entire season of a police procedural on speed and steroids. That’s both good and bad. While Maiwenn covers a lot of ground on the war between the sexes, generations and classes as well as established order vs. societal chaos, some scenes get short shrift. You feel the pressure these police are under, their need to release it–comedy relief is welcome–and the sacrifices they make for the greater good. The film is very real–and very grueling.
“A powerhouse of emotional jolts, freewheeling comedy and socially-minded storytelling, ‘Poliss’ (‘Polisse’) reps an admirable step up for writer-director-actress Maiwenn, and one which should finally expand her audience beyond French borders. This extensive portrayal of officers working in a Parisian Child Protection Unit is packed with raw energy and visceral performances from an accomplished cast, and despite an unwieldy episodic structure, the film touches where it matters most.”
“Crimes against minors, often vice-related, are the harrowing day-to-day reality of this motley group of cops, who face their work with a necessary dose of humor and the more-than-occasional breakdown. Though rough edges are very much part of pic’s fabric and charm, the current two-hour-plus edit is too choppy, with many sequences feeling rushed or underdeveloped,..As in her previous efforts, Maiwenn coaxes terrific, naturalistic perfs from her ensemble without eschewing the extreme emotional highs and lows that could have led to more caricatured turns.”
“With a very, very loose narrative structure — it’s practically non-existent — the film moves like a documentary, dropping in and out of cases and countering that with peeks into the personal lives of the cops as well,..the immediacy of the film lends itself powerfully to the sequences focusing on the myriad of cases that come through the CPU doors. You couldn’t think up the kind of stuff they deal with if you tried, but again, without realizing what she has, Maiwenn thinks she needs to put it over the top,..When the film is true to itself it works wonderfully.”
“All too often, the cast look like drama students put into some sort of group improv workshop and told to think themselves into the role of stressed cops. This means they shout at each other, and then they tell each other to calm down,..Some of the movie works: there is a scene that shows the officers – strained beyond endurance – laughing uncontrollably, and inappropriately, at some of the evidence. But elsewhere there are a lot of wrong notes and horrendous tonal misjudgements.”