A lot of film reviewers are going to rush to use the adjective ‘gritty realism’ as a means of describing this film in type. It definitely is, for the record, but it’s far too limiting a term for a film so rich and deep as this.
Polisse is a French drama that won the Cannes Jury Award in 2011. The plot, as hard as it is to minimise down to a few basic details, concerns a local photographer Melissa who’s assigned to the Child Protection Unit (CPU) to document their life for an upcoming book. What we’re introduced to however is a flurry of characters and given glimpses into their lives, both at work and in private. This is a film that does not care what your background is or what your religion is, it only wants the truth to shine through the gutter of shit that its world has become.
It’s this gutter that the CPU lives in and strives to protect the children of, rescuing them from further danger. It’s the very same world that infects their private lives and hurts their loved ones, leaving them as alone and vulnerable as the children they’re protecting. Maiwenn stars as Melissa, the photographer, and doubles as director and writer in a performance that’ll either have you reaching for the spew bucket or completely mesmerised by. (I’m clearly in the latter as it’s a role that defies convention and comes close to breaking the fourth wall.) Melissa very much keeps to herself and plays the role of the wallflower, capturing whatever she feels necessary with the lens. Fred (Joeystarr) takes issue with her possible understanding that she’s only noting images that make the CPU look rough and later on she confides in him that she’s terrified. It’s the beginnings of a relationship that doesn’t exactly blossom but doesn’t flatline either.
Like the rest of the characters, their private lives come second to the job. Any notion of enjoyment outside work is brief and sudden. Kids need rescuing and they’re the only ones capable of doing it. Polisse however (named after a child’s misspelling of the obvious reference) the role of the director is far more visible but still not as clear-cut. She’s either committing an acting sin or striking genius by placing herself in the CPU under the guise of ‘Melissa’. Maiwenn’s brought the camera in not to capture images for a book but to show the outside world – us, the viewer – what life is really like inside these places.
We’re oblivious to a lot of the evil and despicable behaviour men and women commit on the streets and her interest is in showing us what people are capable of. What the men and women of the CPU confront each and every day when we’re whingeing over burnt coffee and waking up after the alarm. Being that children are their main interest, the horror isn’t exactly confronting (excluding a few what-the-hell moments) but more disturbing, such as when they’re questioning older men accused of molesting their daughter or niece and they’re incredibly smug about it. As if nothing was wrong. There’s no centrepiece to the film, nor is there a great arc building to a explosive finale.
Maiwenn isn’t interested in anything else beyond showing us what these people do and how they try to live, emphasis on ‘try’. Polisse has the dark spotted appearance of a loose documentary. The ending has left a lot of people divided and I obviously won’t discuss it here with you but considering how desperate everyone is to find the light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t think it’s too impossible a consequence.
Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
Directed by: Maïwenn
Written by: Maïwenn (screenplay), Emmanuelle Bercot (screenplay)
Starring: Karin Viard, Joey Starr and Marina Foïs
Polisse is out now in limited release.