The Grand Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and recipient of more than a dozen Cesar Award nominations, “Polisse” represents a unique French entry in a well-worn genre — the grizzled police department drama. Centering on the myriad investigations of the Child Protection Unit of a Paris bureau, the movie features all sorts of shocking, sad and scandalous subplots about child abuse, abandonment, underage pickpockets and predatory sexual behavior. But it’s also surprising for another reason — its writer-director and co-star, Maiwenn Le Besco, is a female, trading in a genre most typically reserved for men. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Maiwenn recently, about her movie, its life-changing reception at Cannes, her love for Las Vegas, and what drew her to the arts. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: In the United States, child protection services and shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” have made the special efforts of those departments [more broadly] known. How known is the work of the Child Protection Unit in France?
Maiwenn: Not that much. I think when you see a movie about police [in France], it’s more focused on money and drugs. So I’m very proud, because since the movie has come out there has been a lot of talk about child protection.
ShockYa: You’re friends with (co-writer) Emmanuelle Bercot, but she was initially resistant to working with you, right? What made her right to collaborate with on the script?
Maiwenn: Well, we’re friends and almost have the same tastes in movies. So it’s better when you’re working with a writer to have the same tastes. And I knew that she had worked on scripts with several characters, and (therefore) knew how to organize the work about this idea. So I was attracted for many reasons.
ShockYa: And how long were you embedded with the police unit (with whom you did research)?
Maiwenn: I cannot really say how long I was with them because the police asked me not to talk about it. But enough time to have the material to work with.
ShockYa: You got the idea for the script from a documentary on television. In America, many like Tyler Perry and Teri Hatcher have talked about their own experiences with child abuse, and it’s become less stigmatized. Is it a topic that’s more open for discussion in France now, or do you feel it’s more taboo?
Maiwenn: That’s a good question. (long pause) I don’t know if it’s taboo to talk about childhood, but I think it was a taboo to admit that being an artist is coming from a taboo. Do you know what I mean?
ShockYa: I’m not sure that I do.
Maiwenn: It’s perhaps the responsibility of the artist to look inside themselves and address things that are so profound and possibly even taboo, whether it be in movies or writing or music. Artists often look inwards, and try to express something that includes taboo subjects. Perhaps it’s more of the artistic process.
ShockYa: So there was a personal connection? Had you had any experience with child abuse yourself?
Maiwenn: Well, I had a childhood that was very tough, but I think you don’t become an artist without any reason.
ShockYa: Was acting and performance of the arts something that you had a strong draw toward as a child?
Maiwenn: It was an escape on one hand, but on the other side it was a jail because my mom was also so obsessed [with the idea of] me being a star that it didn’t match. My tastes as a kid were not the same tastes as my mother, of course. She wanted me to watch Jean-Luc Godard when I was so small, and I just wanted to see movies that [were pure] entertainment. I discovered more about movies when I skipped out of school. I was going around a certain area where there a lot of street urchins, and people hanging around record stores. I was hanging out all day long looking at the shops when I was 11 or 12, and one day I went into a cinema. I wanted to buy one ticket, and I had a bunch of coins. The cashier saw that it was my savings, all these small coins, and he said, “OK, whenever you want to come here, you don’t have to pay.” And I never knew why he told me that. I’ve been talking about him so much recently in interviews because I just almost want to find him and thank him. I want him to know how grateful I am toward him, because thanks to him I discovered a cinema that was different than the tastes of my mom. It was also entertainment, and nice movies. I discovered everything from “Thelma & Louise” to Ken Loach. It was a popular place, in a shopping mall, and I was previously used to seeing movies with my mom that were boring and black-and-white, with lots of talking. Suddenly I said, “Oh my God, there are so many other movies that are good.” Ever since then I had two sides with cinema — one with my mom, and one with other movies.
ShockYa: In the last six or seven years, you haven’t acted in any other films other than the ones you’ve directed. Is that where your interest is these days, strictly behind the camera?
Maiwenn: No, I still like to act, but I just like to be in good movies. I don’t read many scripts as an actress, but I have the feeling that directors are afraid of me. They think I have strong opinions, or am going to be a nightmare on the set. They think, because I’m also a director, that I’m going to be hard to deal with, but it is not true at all.
ShockYa: Is that based on bad old gossip or specific incidents?
Maiwenn: I think it’s based on the fact that I’m a woman, which is suspicious to some. Men, they just like to dominate.
ShockYa: That’s a good pivot point for my next question, actually. “Polisse” showcases interesting and complex relationships between male and female characters, and gets into their personal lives in a manner that I’m not sure a male filmmaker, particularly in Europe, would.
Maiwenn: I decided at the beginning to involve all the characters’ private lives, otherwise I was feeling like we would be stuck in just one place. It was important for me to follow the cops even home. I decided to commit to really following those points-of-view.
ShockYa: Yet your first draft ended with several of the cops running off to Las Vegas with a bunch of movie, right? Was this a big commercial ending, a homage to “Ocean’s 11″?
Maiwenn: Ahh, yes, I love so much Las Vegas! It is very cinematic. I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.” One day I will make a scene or whole movie in Las Vegas.
ShockYa: When was the first time you went to Vegas, and did you love it immediately?
Maiwenn: When I was 18, when I got married. I was so happy. I like the [city's] contrasts.
ShockYa: What about the ending that you arrived at, then? Because after watching “Polisse” I can’t think of an ending that’s more emotionally opposite than something that ends in Vegas with cops on the lam.
Maiwenn: Well, there are many answers to that. What is your answer?
ShockYa: Well, obviously [a character] is unhappy. But I found it surprising, and a bit confounding.
Maiwenn: Yeah, I wanted you to be surprised. I wanted to surprise the audience, and even if you would expect something shocking I thought you might expect it from another character. So it was [misdirection].
ShockYa: The officers in the movie have to deal with terrible things. Yet there’s another scene where they laugh at the story of a girl who says she gave head to a bunch of guys in order to get her phone back. In the audience with whom I saw the film, people were shocked because they thought the behavior was so unprofessional.
Maiwenn: Did you like that scene, or were you embarrassed?
ShockYa: I wasn’t embarrassed, no. But all of the cops in the scene are going along with it, there wasn’t one person in the scene who kept it together and said, “Stop it.” I won’t say I didn’t understand… but the lack of a contrasting emotional point-of-view seemed [a curious choice]. How was the reaction [to that scene] at festivals you may have traveled to, and in France?
Maiwenn: Well, in France they liked it. But you’re right, I was a little bit curious about the reaction of American audiences. But here in Los Angeles when I saw the movie [when it premiered at the COLCOA Festival], the reaction was so good. I understand if the audience is shocked, because yes, it’s not professional. But that’s why I said I didn’t want to show the characters as heroes all the time. They aren’t heroes all the time, sometimes they deviate.
ShockYa: How about the reaction at the Cannes Film Festival, then, where the film was really embraced last year.
Maiwenn: Cannes changed my whole life. I learned the film was selected to the festival on a Wednesday night, and on Thursday my life changed right away. It’s been one year now. I felt like I was the president of France. Even before the festival, as soon as friends knew my life changed. So can you imagine then (being) at the festival, and when I got the prize and then the film released? Everything went like “boom-boom-boom.” The thing that is wonderful about Cannes is that you can be such a little director and the festival is so big and powerful. It was such a honor to even be selected, I was like, “I don’t care if they even give me tomatoes on my face, I’m in Cannes, I’m in between Almodovar and Lars von Trier!”
Written by: Brent Simon