Handling the mistreatment and welfare of children on film is always a dangerous business. There is a fine line between too cliché and too brutal, giving an audience what they expect or pushing them too far. This is the challenge director Maïwenn faced with ‘Polisse’, a doco-drama following the Parisian Child Protection Unit through both their everyday cases and their personal lives. There is a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with dealing with this kind of subject, and every frame of this handsomely made film wears that responsibility on its sleeve.
‘Polisse’ is the kind of film that is very hard to summarise effectively. Rather than constructing it around a strong central narrative, Maïwenn and co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot adopt a more episodic structure, moving from case-to-case quickly and making significant leaps of time between. Central to the film is the CPU itself, a group of ordinary men and women trying to balance a stressful, often emotionally difficult career with a home life consistently sapped of energy and time. There is a heavy emphasis (often too heavy) that these are just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, often with little administrative or spousal support.
After a successful career as an actress in France, working extensively with Luc Beeson, Maïwenn has made a successful transition into directing. From a technical standpoint, ‘Polisse’ is an incredibly accomplished film. The strength of her talents with the camera and editing are impressive, especially when dealing with the swift movements within the screenplay. She also features in the film as a photographer assigned to the unit to document their work, and is able to balance the two roles well.
However, as seems to be a common theme with arthouse films these days, technical skill cannot overcome the shortfallings in the screenplay. Adopting an episodic structure makes sense in theory, giving the film a ‘documentary’ feel, but with so many cases to deal with, the film changes focus too often. There's very little to grip on to as the film progresses, often swinging from one emotional state to the next without closure or satisfaction. The most fascinating material in the film are the cases themselves, but Maïwenn chooses to leave them unresolved, and no case is followed through to the very end. In a strange way, we also begin to resent the victims and their families, as all they seem to do is get in the way of the CPU and their investigations.
Unfortunately, what lets the film down the most is the CPU itself. Firstly, there are far too many members to follow, and what little information we are given about their personal lives is fleeting and dissatisfying. Perhaps even more problematic is that they all appear to be characters out of a soap opera, every single one caught up in some romantic-sexual-financial-personal dilemma, to the point of melodrama. The performances are serviceable, but can’t keep away from overacting, especially when given such over-the-top material to deal with. These can’t feel like real people when every single one feels like they are in an episode of ‘The Bill’. In the end, it becomes very hard to care about them or their work when they seem so two-dimensional or, even worse, badly carved three-dimensional caricatures. Maïwenn also sees fit to put every single stumbling block in their way, making them seem like mistreated children themselves within the Paris police force, them running around with limited resources while other departments sit around with better offices and more time on their hands. The film finally builds towards an unexpected and, in many ways, unjustified conclusion that leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth and (surprise!) no sense of resolution other than life is difficult and never gets better.
The characters all appear to be characters out of a soap opera, every single one caught up in some romantic-sexual-financial-personal dilemma, to the point of melodrama.
At Cannes, ‘Polisse’ was awarded the Grand Jury prize, and in a way, this makes sense. It highlights a social spectrum of France that may not be given the attention it deserves, and praises an area of child welfare that gets overlooked. It's just such a pity that the film chooses to present them in such a melodramatic manner, an uneven attempt at realism with hokey romance. What you get in the end feel more like a bunch of episodes of ‘Law and Order SVU’ stuck together with some dashes of ‘The Bill’ thrown in just to make it taste a little more bitter. It absolves some middle-class guilt about how tough life can be in these circumstances, but doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.