Director: Maiwenn Le Besco
Starring: Frederic Pierrot, Marina Fois, Karin Viard, Emmanuelle Bercot, Joeystarr, Maiwenn, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Karole Rocher, Riccardo Scamarcio
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Polisse” is a French cop drama that comes across as something of a cinematic turducken — filling, yes, but also rather unnaturally stuffed to the breaking point with different and sometimes at odds tastes. Directed and co-written by Maiwenn (who typically eschews her surname, Le Besco), the movie connects fitfully through its sheer urgency — it’s a work of deep feeling. Vacuuming out the exotic benefit of its foreign film presentation, however, many arthouse patrons might be left wanting slightly more disciplined and pruned storytelling.
The film centers around a Child Protection Unit in a northern Paris police precinct, where ethnic and gender tensions inform the squad’s behavior, giving it the feel of a prickly family whose bickering stems from an intensity of caring and investment. Leader Balloo (Frederic Pierrot) tries to keep everyone in line, including Nadine (Karin Viard), Iris (Marina Fois), Mathieu (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Chrys (Karole Rocher) and the hotheaded Fred (Joeystarr), who is suffering from a separation from his daughter. When a photographer, Melissa (Maiwenn), is assigned by the Interior Ministry to track them and photograph their efforts, it exacerbates underlying tensions.
Nominated for 13 Cesar Awards, the French Oscar equivalent, “Polisse” (its title reflects a childish misspelling of the word “police”) feels lauded a bit more for its reach than its grasp. The movie has a gritty technical construction that certainly lends it a compelling, documentary-like feel, but in its panicked rush to include so many personal crises (bulimia, divorce and otherwise faltering relationships) and underline the point that there is a complete demolition between the professional and private lives of its characters, it comes across as too cocksure and overbearing by about half. Multiple reviewers have invoked the description of “Polisse,” which runs 127 minutes, as having a season’s worth of HBO’s “The Wire” boiled down or crammed into one feature, but in this instance I’d argue that’s not necessarily a compliment.
Its rangy and frequently jaw-dropping collection of case stories — said to be comprised wholly of material that Maiwenn witnessed directly during a lengthy research embed with police officers, or factual experiences shared by them — certainly afford “Polisse” its most arresting moments. A raped woman who gives birth to a stillborn child is forced to give the baby a name, for its death certificate; a father asserts that he’ll pull strings with department higher-ups to get off charges after admitting a sexual attraction (and basically more) to his daughter; in matter-of-fact fashion, another woman explains how she no longer jacks off her three-year-old to relieve stress, since she was told it was “wrong.”
In the movie’s most divisive scene, though, officers break up and crack grossly inappropriate jokes when a young girl shares a story about performing oral sex on several boys in order to get back her stolen smartphone. Maiwenn fails to show any accountability or regret for this behavior — engaged in by male and female officers alike — and it results in a patina of distancing distaste.
There is a delicateness to a great many of the film’s scenes with children, at least insofar as the presentation of the minors. The other performances, though, range from solid to over-modulated. Maiwenn opts for a baseline emotional setting of overheated, so the movie — already more of a slice-of-life portrait that doesn’t have any naturally building dramatic tension — just starts to come across as pummeling, and one-note. An ending that includes some out-of-left-field tragedy feels like cheap overreach for emotional statement, too. “Polisse” has moments of raw connection, but it comes across also as less than the sum of its parts — a messy canvas that equates every square inch of color with manifest profundity.
Written by: Brent Simon