Polisse is French multi-hyphenate Maïwenn’s third feature film as (co)writer, director and featured actress, and it’s her most ambitious, and successful. A slice-of-life look at the working and personal lives of Paris’ Child Protection Unit of the police force, it is deliberately episodic, extremely well acted, and feels properly and respectfully researched. It’s a bold film and it resonates long after it’s over.
Structurally, the film feels almost as though it were a television series that had been cut down into a longish (127 minutes) feature, as the story is composed of about a dozen different episodes, and they pretty much happen sequentially, with little overlap. So we might have our team of polisse dealing with an unrepentant father who essentially admits to molesting his daughter, knowing he’s got friends in high places, followed by an Islamic father who has arranged for his daughter to be married (against her wishes and therefore against French law); we might get closure on these stories, we might not. The film is not out to wrap up each dilemma for these extremely dedicated cops; it’s out to look at what these cops do and the impact it has on them – dealing, as they are, with some of the most distasteful, sad crimes in their community on a daily basis.
This stylistic choice is brave and not always brilliant; by the time we realise that not all of the stories are going to have conclusions, we begin to wonder why we’re getting so many of them: why not have fewer, but play them out? But that’s also why the film feels more real and immediate than television procedural cop dramas: not everything gets tied up in the real lives of the type of cops this film is portraying, or, if it does, it happens over real time, not TV time.
The film feels a little long; it may have needed one or two less stories or at least the more ruthless editing of an extremely long scene in the middle of the film showing the cops letting their hair down: watching people have fun isn’t particularly dramatic, even if those people are the defenders of Paris’ children. The ending is also, perhaps, not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. But more than many films, this is about the people and their chosen, terrifying, deeply troubling profession and how they deal with it, rather than intricacies of plot. It’s got great rawness and great honesty, a big heart and a sense of sincerity. I keep thinking about it.
Maïwenn is an extremely interesting artist. An actress since the age of five, with many television credits, she casts herself in her own films interestingly. Here, she plays a photojournalist assigned to follow the Child Protection Unit over the course of the year. Wanting to fit in, she dresses down, keeping her hair bundled up on her head and wearing fake glasses. When she’s called out on this, she reveals to her accuser, and to us – the audience – her staggering beauty. It’s brave to play the ugly duckling, knowing you have to live up to the beautiful princess part. It’s brave to write and direct a movie that’s about the people who deal with the people who do bad things to (very often their own) children. Polisse is a brave, and excellent, film.