The daily routine for the officers of the Police Department’s Juvenile Protection Unit in Paris is interrupted with the arrival of a photographer assigned to document the squad. That’s the bare-bones setup for Polisse, a French drama film written, directed by, and starring artist Maïwenn.
We are told in an opening title card that the film is based on real events. Inspired by a documentary about the Child Protection Unit, Maïwenn asked permission to follow the officers on and off the job, in order to write an accurate portrayal of the men and women involved. All the cases in the screenplay were based either on things the director had witnessed during her time with the unit or stories told to her by them.
The movie depicts several different criminal cases, with the sordid topics ranging broadly from physical and sexual abuse to runaways and homeless kids. There is an Arab immigrant who places his underage daughter in an arranged marriage, a girl who tells her mother that her father “loves his daughter too much,” a mother who strokes her toddler son to stop him from crying, a gym-teacher’s affair with his student and even a raid on gypsy camps suspected of prostitution rings. Yet Maïwenn never lets the viewers know the verdicts of the defendants, a conscious decision on her part, since in reality, the police officers seldom get to know the outcome either.
“This is a solid crime drama with a touch of humour and humanity that despite its frenzied structure, never loses focus of the harsh realities at its core…
It’s in the great tradition of the French to deliver such complex, multi-nuanced, informative and provocative examinations of big city crime. From directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean-Luc Godard to more recent films like Un prophète, Polisse can be added to the list. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for thirteen César Awards – an impressive leap for filmmaker-star Maiwenn, directing only her third feature. Like a whole season of The Wire distilled into a single two-hour-plus film, Polisse successfully takes on troubling topics and examines the lives of those who fight to protect the defenseless. This is a solid crime drama with a touch of humour and humanity that despite its frenzied structure, never loses focus of the harsh realities at its core. Very much like David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series, Polisse shows the growing effect on the officers from having to deal with one horrible case after another, day in, day out – not to mention how it affects their private lives.
” Polisse runs the gamut of emotions; tragic, touching, at time hilarious and socially-minded. This is filmic storytelling at its absolute best….
Maïwenn sacrifices a traditional dramatic arc for a documentary-like structure. Polisse is incredibly fast-paced, yet the filmmaker still manages to find ways to bring an air of humanity to both sides of the story. The unobtrusive camera work and expert editing creates an intense and lifelike portrayal of the various personal and professional moments of the cops dealing with these profound issues. Somehow Maïwenn forms a coherent narrative while juggling a massive cast and a half dozen various plot lines. So tightly edited you’re barely given a moment to breathe, Polisse runs the gamut of emotions; tragic, touching, at time hilarious and socially-minded. This is filmic storytelling at its absolute best.
The film is packed with strong performances from an accomplished cast, 11 members in total, who we all get to know extremely well. Instead of a single protagonist, we have a diverse squad of different genders, ages, religion and race to show the true diversity of these officers. Each member of the team feels both genuine and conflicted and each character has a story, and a life that defines their personality.
Some have criticized the decision of the director to cast herself in the film as an embedded photographer covering the unit. Truth be told, as a mere observer from the outside, a secondary character at best to our magnificent eleven, she plays the role well enough, at least sufficiently enough to dismiss this minor complaint.
Polisse is filled to the rim with a number of memorable scenes, disturbing to hilarious to downright tragic. Perhaps the first that quickly comes to mind is a heartbreaking sequence where a young African boy is separated from his alien-immigrant mother who can’t provide him adequate shelter. When Fred (played by rapper Joey Starr) gets involved in the case rebelling against the bureaucracy, we feel that something has clicked deep down inside. The child breaks into hysterical tantrum, and all Fred can do is hold him close. Another prime example is a late scene between two officers, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois), whose explosive office shouting match is something to behold. Maiwenn doesn’t neglect the workers’ personal lives, and some of the film’s highlights come when the eleven members socialize beyond their working schedules. One specific event sees the group head out to a nightclub for some heavy drinking and wild dancing. The scene comes at just the right moment, a much needed break from the constant shouting, ranting, and bantering that fills much of the screen time. It is these moments that we realize the sheer beauty of Polisse, an emotional powerhouse of a film that feels truly authentic in every respect.