A Parisian Child Protection Unit gets the gritty group-portrait treatment in “Polisse,” the third feature from mono-monikered actress-helmer Maiwenn. Crimes against minors, often vice-related, are the harrowing day-to-day reality of this motley group of cops, who face their work with a necessary dose of humor and the more-than-occasional breakdown. Though rough edges are very much part of pic’s fabric and charm, the current two-hour-plus edit is too choppy, with many sequences feeling rushed or underdeveloped. Nonetheless, this police ensembler has enough highlights to arrest savvy arthouse patrons worldwide.
Maiwenn demonstrated a flair for mixing comedy, drama, autobiographical elements and a documentary-like approach in her sophomore helming effort, “All About Actresses.” But her latest has more in common, thematically speaking, with her autobiographical directorial debut, “Forgive Me,” a crude, at times painfully honest film about a pregnant daughter’s relationship with her abusive father.
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The helmer’s third and by far most ambitious and complex pic, “Polisse” looks at a large group of colleagues who work for the Child Protection Unit in northern Paris. Early reels immediately throw auds into the thick of things, and characters only slowly emerge as Maiwenn follows different cases, heated discussions over lunch and after-work gossip sessions.
The details of the vice-related cases, many of them shocking even for seasoned vets like the ones portrayed here, are not as important as the effect they have on the cops, who try to continue living their own lives as best they can while doing a job that confronts them with bottom-of-the-barrel humanity on a daily basis.
The squad includes Nadine (Karin Viard), who’s in the middle of a divorce and has to watch what she eats, while her work partner, Iris (Marina Fois), swears by a little exercise (and some trips to the restroom). Mathieu (Nicolas Duvauchelle) secretly carries a torch for his married partner, Chrys (Karole Rocher), who’s just found out she’s pregnant. The unit daddy is Balloo (Frederic Pierrot), who allows Fred (Joeystarr), the resident hothead with the heart of gold, to crash at his place.
Maiwenn is probably most famous Stateside for her supporting role in “The Fifth Element” from Luc Besson, with whom she had a child at 16. Here, she co-stars as a nerdy photog who has an assignment from the Interior Ministry to document the unit’s work. Somewhat oddly, Maiwenn’s character is one of the group’s blander elements, as is the role played by actress/co-scripter Emmanuelle Bercot.
“Polisse” is most successful in several impressive individual moments, such as a big celebration in a club after a case has a happy ending; a hilarious scene in which the entire office is confronted with a teen who values her smartphone more than her dignity; and the impressive dramatic undercurrents that surface when Fred can’t find a shelter for an immigrant mother and her young son.
Impressively, the editing balances these moments of high drama and police action with more routine office work, as the cops blow off steam and reveal snippets of their private lives. But while this equilibrium works well in terms of tone, individual story threads are shortchanged and some narrative inroads barely developed.
Some characters remain background filler except for one big scene, while a late-in-the-game field operation in a mall is treated in such a rushed manner that it seems to serve only as a setup for the rather anticlimactic hospital scene that follows. The ending rather awkwardly crosscuts between one of the rare scenes that stays close to the p.o.v. of a child victim, apparently chosen at random, and the rather drastic goings-on during a unit meeting.
As in her previous efforts, Maiwenn coaxes terrific, naturalistic perfs from her ensemble without eschewing the extreme emotional highs and lows that could have led to more caricatured turns. Joeystarr, a rapper famous locally for his run-ins with (irony of ironies) the police as much as his music, delivers on the promise of acting talent he first suggested in “All About Actresses.” The way he’s seen behaving around his own daughter, of whom he sees very little, speaks volumes about how working for the unit can be its own kind of slow poison.
Handheld video aesthetic again imbues a nonfiction feel that augments the urgency and rawness that propel the entire film. Downbeat but unsentimental score by Stephen Warbeck is used only sparingly.
English-language press materials refer to pic as “Poliss,” though the print caught in Cannes left the original title, a French, childlike spelling of “Police,” untranslated.