A powerful fly-on-the-wall look at one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and the toll it takes on those who do it.
Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, actress and director Maïwenn’s third feature wastes no time in establishing its difficult subject matter. Inspired by a documentary on the Child Protection Unit the filmmaker observed on television, this is certainly not Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Taking the raw immediacy of her two previous films, Maïwenn channels it through popular perceptions of TV cops to create a fascinating group character study.
Polisse follows the daily grind of the Parisian Child Protection Unit, from catching old men exposing themselves to children to chit chat over lunch and the occasional downtime. Depicting a group of cops in a battle that never ends, the film largely centres on Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Foïs), who play police partners and are going through their own personal situations. Other cops such as Fred (Joeystarr) find themselves increasingly unable to separate themselves from the horrors they see every day, taking it out on the brass who keep the unit at arm’s length. Entering this volatile situation is photographer Melissa (Maïwenn), who exposes more than just the daily encounters with her observational lens.
Shot in the handheld style of modern documentaries, Maïwenn likes to get in as close as the photographer she portrays. This proximity is not confined to the cameras either, with the freewheeling narrative weaving in and out of the lives of the small unit of police who do almost everything as a singular unit. The pack mentality is followed through tears and laughter, including a number of scenes played for surprisingly frequent levity. There is a moment where the police unit can’t stop laughing over a young girl’s willingness to give a blow job to get her smartphone back. This breaks the tension, but a sense of gloom is always lurking in the shadows. When that same tension finally breaks with anger between colleagues, especially a fight between Nadine and Iris, it is all the more devastating for this cinematic claustrophobia.
Aiding the effortlessness of this intimate character portrait is an all-star cast that also includes co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot, an accomplished director in her own right, and Jérémie Elkaïm, most recently scene in Declaration of War. Even Mademoiselle Chambon‘s Sandrine Kiberlain turns up for a supporting role as a distraught mother faced with the guilt of allowing her husband’s abuse of their daughter to continue under her nose. Every character, no matter how minor, is played with absolute conviction, to the point that those not familiar with these actors may actually believe them to be real cops and victims.
Polisse is an almost flawless multi-character study that remains true to its subject throughout, which makes an almost fatal misstep in the final scene all the harder to forgive. An unforeseen and completely uncharacteristic tragic action is taken, almost wholly unraveling the unity of the narrative before it. As difficult as it might be to overlook, it is the only glitch in this otherwise powerful piece of cinema that is difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away from.