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Cannes Review: 'Polisse' A Gritty Police Procedural That Can't Avoid Soap Opera Theatrics

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 13, 2011 at 1:30AM

On paper, a film investigating the inner workings of the police department seems like an odd choice for the Cannes Film Festival which prides itself on breaking new voices in cinema. Certainly, the film world has never lacked in depictions of a cop's life in all its difficult detail. But "Polisse" brings something slightly different to the equation. Inspired by a documentary the singularly named director Maiwenn saw on television about the Child Protection Unit, she set out to do her own research and based on that she's spun "Polisse." No, this isn't just a two hour episode of "Law & Order: SVU" (though at its worst, it does evoke some of the shriller moments of that show), instead, it's a largely unflinching look at the harrowing crimes this group of undersung officers investigate on a day to day to basis and the repercussions it has on their personal lives.
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On paper, a film investigating the inner workings of the police department seems like an odd choice for the Cannes Film Festival which prides itself on breaking new voices in cinema. Certainly, the film world has never lacked in depictions of a cop's life in all its difficult detail. But "Polisse" brings something slightly different to the equation. Inspired by a documentary the singularly named director Maiwenn saw on television about the Child Protection Unit, she set out to do her own research and based on that she's spun "Polisse." No, this isn't just a two hour episode of "Law & Order: SVU" (though at its worst, it does evoke some of the shriller moments of that show), instead, it's a largely unflinching look at the harrowing crimes this group of undersung officers investigate on a day to day to basis and the repercussions it has on their personal lives.

The film starts with a rather tough session between one of the CPU officers and a young child who been brought in with accusations that her father is molesting her. The sequence immediately conveys not only the kind of cases that cross the department's desk, but also fast and hard decisions that need to be made as each layer of a potential case is unfurled. It's not only getting the story from the victim -- it's often a case of trying to determine if they're telling the truth in the first place. It's a job that requires walking on a constant tightrope on a razor's edge of emotion. However, Maiwenn isn't just concerned with getting the workaday world accurately captured, she creates a rich array of complex characters to inhabit the roles of these officers. A wonderful lunchtime sequence in the cafeteria gives us the broad sketches that will be later filled out, introducing this ragtag crew of men and women with their own individual opinions, disagreements and relationships. And while the reach is admirable, Maiwenn just can't close the grasp on what she puts forth.

The approach is certainly not to be faulted. With a very, very loose narrative structure -- it's practically non-existent -- the film moves like a documentary, dropping in and out of cases and countering that with peeks into the personal lives of the cops as well. So, we're not sure why we need an audience surrogate, but we get one anyway in the form of Zaia, a photographer who is assigned to document the CPU day-to-day. Not only is her assignment ultimately pointless in the arch of the film (after she's introduced the unit, no-one asks about it again) the character herself spends most of the film meek and quiet on the edge of the frame, clicking her camera. It's an extra character in a film swimming with them...and that's the other problem.

Maiwenn tries to have it both ways, creating a gritty look into the heart of the CPU while creating a compelling character study, but even with just over two hours it's not enough time for the half dozen plus officers to get their due. As you can probably tell this far into the review, we couldn't name them all if we tried. The free flowing nature of the film doesn't allow us to get truly close enough to these characters to make the later stage denouements of their respective arcs (though to call them "arcs" is a bit of a stretch) resonate. That said, the immediacy of the film lends itself powerfully to the sequences focusing on the myriad of cases that come through the CPU doors. You couldn't think up the kind of stuff they deal with if you tried, but again, without realizing what she has, Maiwenn thinks she needs to put it over the top.

You would think that descriptions of rape, molestation and abuse would be enough -- and they are -- but Maiwenn goes for shock value with a dead baby, a different instance with a baby nearly dying and if that wasn't enough, the CPU get called in to help out on a special ops unit mission that of course, turns violent, and ends with one officer on the receiving end of a bullet. It's additional histrionics for a film that just doesn't need it. And it doesn't end there. As we get to know each officer, it becomes a game of "Whose Life Is Worse?" Most of the cops are divorced if not headed there, and for the one guy who presumably is happily married, it turns out his wife who wants a baby and only will have sex when she's fertile, also happens to be bulimic.

When the film is true to itself it works wonderfully. It's refreshing to see a movie where cops actually laugh at the absurdity of stuff they have to deal with. One memorable sequence had the CPU unit laughing until they cried when a teenaged girl bluntly told them she freely gave blowjobs to a group of boys to get her cell phone back. And little moments -- like the officers playing Party Poker or hitting Facebook to keep their minds from dwelling on the fate of their cases -- are delivered subtly.

But those details and honesty are only half a film that is largely one note and runs completely out of steam with still thirty minutes left to go. One can't help but feel that "Polisse" is, at least half of the time, the work of a filmmaker who isn't confident in what they have on the page, or simply isn't aware. "Less is more" is a pretty tired phrase, but sometimes aphorisms exist for a reason. There is a much more powerful film somewhere in here that is smothered by unwise strides into Movie-ness (and we're not going to get into the eye-rolling shock ending). "Polisse" comes in for the arrest, but can't quite close the cuffs. [C]

This article is related to: Foreign Films, Review, Polisse


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