With a fantastic ensemble cast, Maïwenn’s Polisse offers an enjoyably human look into the nether reaches of humanity and its bluecoat defenders.
The Thin Blue Line by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
There aren’t many filmmakers who can get away with a single sobriquet – only Almodovar, Madonna and McG spring to mind. But Maïwenn, with her bespectacled, shrinking-violet performance in Polisse, is a far cry from these divas – despite her unforgettable performance as the opera-singing blue alien in her then husband’s film The Fifth Element. Her one-word moniker comes from a refusal to give credit to her patronym, a family strife that also lies at the heart of her police drama Polisse. Having spent time researching the film embedded with a Child Protection Unit in Paris, Maïwenn plays alter ego Melissa, a quietly observing photographer estranged from the flaky celebrity father of her children. But with a strong cast of French heavyweights, including Karin Viard, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Marina Foïs and Sandrine Kiberlain, Polisse is above all a tribute to the trials and tribulations of the gendarmes’ daily grind.
With its title a childish rendition of Police, you might expect Polisse to be a child’s eye view of the Child Protection Unit. And comprised of real-life incidents, Maïwenn’s film begins with the procedurals of three young girls, alternately exposing the sensitivity of police interviewing, the vigorous berating of a wayward teen and the problematic pitfalls of establishing the truth within family power struggles. Its brightly coloured titles, with its close-ups on red-lipped Barbie dolls, maintain the illusion, albeit with an unpleasant suggestion of sexuality. But as we glimpse behind the closed doors of child protection and into the dark underworld of child abuse, the children remain for the most part victims and it’s the law enforcers who become the film’s primary focus. Desperately persevering, bitter and sex-obsessed, the Child Protection Unit is a tight-knit family, and it’s their reactions to the continuous battery of atrocities that fall under the photographer’s lens.
According to Kieslowski, it was the fright of real tears that chased him away from documentary filmmaking and into feature films. And it’s the same dilemma that Maïwenn polemicises in Polisse, her silent photographer keeping her distance from the group, peering under the spectacles perched on her forehead, shyly adjusting focus. Her Ministry of the Interior approved licence to access all areas creates an artistic dilemma about what to snap, which only half-answers the film’s own accusation of miserabilism; the wandering focus on photographer, police and victim, as well as occasional bursts of humour, can’t counteract its almost obsessive interest in paedophilia. From the very beginning we’re thrust into the muddy waters of child abuse and gang rape, and even crimes of physical abuse dissolve into the sexual, with the child-shaking mother who puts her boys to sleep with a little hand-job.
Maïwenn’s role, however, is intriguingly complex. At first she’s a reticent observer, almost amateurish in her clumsiness with the camera. And it’s a refreshing self-depreciation, a long way from the self-love of other actor-directors. But it’s a feint. And in the second half, as the police ensemble refuses to provide a neat narrative arc, her character shoulders the story more and more – her separation from her feckless ex-lover, her love affair with Fred and her crowning self-realisation as a phototographer as she moves into a bedsit with a view near the Gare du Nord from which she can take photos of real people. This self-realisation superstructure lies on weak foundations, and it’s Polisse‘s stellar cast and documentary-style police work which provide the real thrills. Personalities and relationships are nuanced, albeit with a gynocentric slant towards women and mothers. Off-duty conversations are infused with a prurient indecency, falling somewhere between work-obsessed and man-hating. Karin Viard and Marina Foïs are both spellbinding as the mother holding it together through divorce and the bulimic thirty-something craving a baby, their office argument crackling with explosive discontentment. And while only women and fathers are granted a backstory, it’s these policemen and women’s passion for their work which both makes and breaks them – preventing normal relationships, small talk or even life.
A woolly mass of intriguing psychological strands, Polisse never quite manages to spin them into a cohesive yarn. The film is at its strongest and most enjoyable as a fictionalised fly-on-the-wall documentary, the performances at times so convincing it feels as though we should be watching in digital. Political threads of anti-Sarkozy vitriol, lack of government funding or string-pulling corruption pack a weak punch, but its flashes of humour are brilliant, such as the detectives splitting their sides over the girl who gives boys blow jobs in order to get back her stolen smartphone, or their Keystone Kops moment of disappointment as they find their third car on loan to Narcotics. All the incidents have an undeniable ring of truth, and without the love story or feminist agenda, Polisse would be a brilliant French connection to the boys and girls in blue.
Polisse is released in the UK on 15th June 2012