Protecting kids in a gritty Paris
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 25, 2012
Maiwenn, the French actress who directed “Polisse” and who plays a photojournalist assigned to shoot Parisian cops assigned to the city’s child protection unit, makes no secret of her gritty and emotionally devastating film’s mission. It’s clear from a scene in which her character -- Melissa, who by now has been embedded with the squad for several stressful days -- gets chewed out by one of her subjects, Fred (the rapper Didier Morville, who performs under the name JoeyStarr).
Fred is upset that Melissa seems to be shooting only two extremes of activity: either intervals of monotonous downtime or moments of intense anguish, such as the removal of a crying child from an abusive parent. What about everything else in between, he wonders.
Maiwenn’s film suffers from no such blind spots. Based on actual case files and written by Maiwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot (who also plays a cop), the movie cuts between the nastiness of the unit’s work and the ups and downs of its members’ personal lives and romantic entanglements. It’s messy, boring, funny, suspenseful, touching, jubilant and tragic.
Although there are moments where the film seems to be drawing easy parallels between the suffering of its young victims and the romantic dramas of its grown-up protagonists, “Polisse” delivers no pat message. Except for an ending that veers unexpectedly into melodrama, the movie for the most part takes a frank, deadpan tone that serves its complex themes well.
Whether it’s a parent molesting a child or a teenager forced by a peer to perform a sex act to recover her smartphone, the cases are all nauseating. But the police don’t always react in predictable or expected ways. In one memorable scene, the members of the unit -- punchy after one case too many, I suppose -- can’t keep from laughing and cracking juvenile jokes in front of an adolescent complainant whose stupidity, quite frankly, almost seems to deserve it.
Because of squirm-inducing scenes such as this, “Polisse” is hard to watch at times, but it’s also hard not to.
Despite its title (meant to evoke a child’s spelling of “police”), the film is not a kid’s- eye view of law enforcement. It avoids sentimentality and undeserved hero-worship. The cops at its center -- short-tempered, insecure, lonely, dishonest at times -- are all too human.
One of them (Karin Viard) is going through a divorce. “You’re a victim,” her partner (Marina Fois) tells her, reminding her -- and us -- that part of growing up means that we lose our protectors, not our vulnerabilities.
“Polisse” isn’t about innocent kids and the horrible things that some adults do to them. It isn’t about being anyone’s savior-with-a-badge, either. Some of the bad guys seem quite wholesome, to tell you the truth, and some of the good guys are jerks.
Life, in “Polisse,” isn’t an us-and-them scenario. In the end, we’re all in this together, the film argues: kids and grown-ups, cops and crooks. “I’m a big girl now,” one of the officers tells a male colleague after he gives her a hard time about having a drink with lunch. With adulthood comes not just freedom and responsibility but also the pain of knowing that our childish fantasies were a lie: Grown-ups can’t fix everything.
Contains obscenity, frank sexual dialogue, brief sensuality and nudity, gun violence and pervasive disturbing thematic material. In French with English subtitles.