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Maiwenn’s Polisse (2011) – cinema review

June 14, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in In Cinemas with 0 Comments

2/3 commendably awkward realism vs. 1/3 contrived melodrama makes Polisse as raw, real and messy as the despairing world it depicts.

Polisse 2011 French police drama directed by Maiwenn

Polisse
(Maïwenn, Fr, 2011)

As anybody who’s ever seen a police procedural will know, dedicated professionals on the beat can also be total screw-ups off-duty. Actually, it’s pretty much essential that the pressures of the day job take their toll on heroic cops’ fraught real-world relationships.

Now imagine if the specifics of the job involve interrogating paedophiles, rescuing abused kids and witnessing on a daily basis the horrible things that adults do to children. Unsurprisingly, the psychological schism is even bigger in Polisse than it usually is, not least because this tough but tenderly observed slice of verite is directed by Maïwenn, an actress most famous for playing the blue alien diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element.

As Polisse follows the lives of a Child Protection Unit going about their bleak business, Maïwenn proves willing, even eager, to play with the clichés of the genre.  Given the harrowing nature of the crimes the CPU has to investigate, their work/life balance isn’t so much damaged as destroyed.  How can they share their office gossip with loved ones when their stories involve rape, incest and abuse? It’s no surprise that the colleagues have adopted each other as a dysfunctional family, with whom they share everything – secrets, social occasions and even sex.

Most interestingly, that also has its toll on how they go about their job because professional and personal boundaries have become blurred. In this most intense and troubling of careers, the release valve is a constant casualness in the office and a hyper-emotional, heart-on-sleeve working style. Interrogations are carried out open plan, with colleagues cracking tactless jokes or eavesdropping in the background, and the cops take it personally every time they come face to face with an unrepentant pervert.  Aside from a rarely seen station commander, there is no by-the-book killjoy telling these cops how to behave. The unit’s boss, Baloo, is as wayward and apparently unprofessional as the rest.

Did I say unprofessional? Only in their manner. When it comes to actual work, these guys are utterly dedicated to their ideals of justice.  Maïwenn is at her boldest in charting the tonal swerves from frivolity to severity; a typical five minute sequence will run the gamut of emotions from gasps of horror to smiles at the team’s larky black comedy, and there are even two dance numbers embedded into the narrative. It’s supremely confident, with Maïwenn’s fly-on-the-wall style capturing life in all of its contradictions, thanks to a uniformly solid ensemble and their carefully delineated, rapid-fire conversations.

The technical control makes it a shame, though, that the film’s content is so flawed. The germ of a narrative arc sees a photographer (played, inevitably, by Maïwenn herself) assigned to the team and, inevitably, falling in love with a member of the team. Intended as an anchor, it actually distracts from the good work done elsewhere because it’s pure melodramatic contrivance.

The hand of a controlling author is also detectable in the random occasions when specific crimes are introduced before an arrest is made, as if French art-house cinema is now looking to TV show Casualty for stylistic ideas. The film doesn’t need these moments, either for shock value or narrative clarity.  We rightly never see the outcome of any of the cases because the cops have long moved on to the next case; nor should we have prior knowledge of the incidents.  By giving the audience a vested interest, Maïwenn undermines the care she has taken elsewhere to throw us into the CPU’s realistic, microcosmic world. 

Polisse is released in cinemas this Friday.

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