It’s sheer coincidence that both this week’s films are by female directors with French connections who play a role in their respective features. The difference is that Polisse, by Maïwenn, has all the drama, the humour and the acting that one misses in Where Do We Go Now? While the latter has a story that feels like a bad fairy tale, the former is so close to reality we might be watching a documentary.
The tall and rather glamorous Maïwenn is a former child star who has dropped her surname of Le Besco in favour of that state of ideal celebrity where one needs only one name – like Madonna, or Sting, or Gough. In Polisse she plays Melissa, a photographer given a commission to follow the Child Protection Unit in Paris. Although we become increasingly entangled in the private lives of the cops, the movie is largely a series of episodes from their daily work routine – a procession of pedophiles, abused children, rape victims, disturbed parents, and so on.
Polisse – a child’s way of saying “police” – is one of those grainy-looking films with much use of the hand-held camera. This is a method that can come across as a mannerism, but when used properly it draws us into an intimate rapport with the characters, as if we were sharing the same space. In this movie it works extraordinarily well, assisted by an excellent cast.
There are many moments in Polisse in which the viewer becomes completely caught up in the drama. There is one unlikely sequence, as the team interviews a teenage rape victim, that is so funny it can only be based on a real life police transcript. Where Do We Go Now? although ostensibly a comedy, has nothing so conducive to laughter. Unbelievably, Polisse also the now-obligatory musical interlude when the group go off to a disco to celebrate the successful outcome of a case, but at least they don’t burst into song. Otherwise the film is as devoid of background music as any Dogme project, and all the more compelling because of the lack of this artificial stimulant.
The episodic nature of Polisse means that it occasionally feels like a piece of cinema verité with no real beginning or end. It is not until the final moments that we realise the story has a very definite termination – one which adds gravity to our understanding of the relationships between characters, and the psychological stresses they endure as part of the job.
Working in the CPU is not the kind of activity one can leave behind in the office. No matter how much they have been through, any case has the capacity to produce a new twist, a new reason to be appalled or enraged. Some cops such as Fred (Joeystarr), seem to respond to everything with exaggerated sensitivity and anger. Others, such as Iris (Marina Foïs), have become hardened by the work, made less willing to forgive or understand others. Almost no-one escapes unscathed as the experiences of the day are carried home, leaving a trail of broken marriages and dysfunctional families.
It is an irony that those who spend all day looking after the rights of children are incapable of managing their own families, but in this film it feels perfectly logical. Maïwenn, who spends much of the time lurking in the background, has brought us a gritty, powerful, slice-of-life drama that will surely be recognised as one the best and most original crime features seen this year.
Polisse, France, rated M, 127 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 30, 2012