'Night Shift' ('Police'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Police Still 1 -Aristide (Omar Sy) und Virginie (Virginie Efira) - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Studiocanal GmbH/Thibault Grabherr
An affectionate if uneven portrait of cops under the gun.

Virginie Efira and Omar Sy co-star in Anne Fontaine’s Paris-set policier, which world premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

In the moody French policier Night Shift (Police), three officers are tasked with escorting an illegal immigrant to Charles de Gaulle airport, where he will be forced onto a plane and sent back to his homeland.

According to statistics, this is something that happens all too frequently in France, where nearly 24,000 people were deported last year alone. And yet, in Anne Fontaine’s well-oiled if rather heavy-handed cop drama, the act becomes a catalyst sending two policemen and one policewoman over the edge and toward the unknown, during one very long and trying night on duty.

Carried by the trio of Virginie Efira, Omar Sy and Grégory Gadebois, as well as the excellent Payman Maadi (A Separation) as the deportee in question, Night Shift is fairly engrossing and slickly made, but can also be infuriating in the way it stretches credibility, especially during a last act that offers up easy solutions for very tough problems. Still, it’s rare in France to see cop stories told from a predominantly female point of view, and in that sense this Berlinale Special premiere could find a decent turnout for its domestic release (set for April 1) and takers in international markets.

Over the last decade, the chameleon-like Fontaine has directed everything from a high-profile fashion biopic (Coco Before Chanel) to an artsy rom-com starring Isabelle Huppert (My Worst Nightmare) to a queer coming-of-ager (Reinventing Marvin) to a stark World War II drama about pregnant nuns (The Innocents), each time applying her polished style and skillful hand with actors to the story in question. She makes precisely the kind of mid-budget, competently middlebrow movies that are disappearing more and more from theaters and turning up nowadays on streamers.

Here, in a script she adapted with Claire Barré from Hugo Boris’ 2016 novel, she depicts law enforcement as a world both gloomy and tender, focusing on the dicey relationships her three cops have with one another, as well as with the mute Tohirov (Maadi), an asylum seeker from Tajikistan they’ve been ordered to send back home.  

Told through three distinct points of view until they mesh together after the first act into a more classic narrative, the film follows coppers Virginie (Efira), Aristide (Sy) and Erik (Gadebois), all of whom work in the same Paris precinct but have drastically different lives. Virginie is one of the sole women in her highly macho patrol squad, working overtime to get away from a husband and a new baby she hardly sees. Aristide is the laid-back jokester, though he's also a sentimental type who’s easily impacted by what he witnesses on the job. And Erik is a no-nonsense cop whose perfect track record is impeded by a nasty drinking problem that keeps coming back to haunt him.

They’re all the kind of stereotypes seen in other cop movies, but the cast is convincing enough, and the changing viewpoints intriguing enough, to allow you to forget some of the broader aspects of the writing and delve into the character dynamics.

When we learn early on that Virginie and Aristide have been having an affair, with the former now pregnant with the latter’s baby, things begin to heat up inside the squad vehicle as the two cops, along with Erik, are sent to take Tohirov to the airport. After they arrive at an asylum center outside of Paris, where a fire has broken out, Virginie catches a glimpse of their wounded soul of a prisoner. Back in the van, she opens his sealed file and learns he was tortured back in Tajikistan, where he will likely be killed if sent over there by force. Soon enough, Virginie and her fellow officers face a major ethical dilemma: Do they shut their mouths and do their jobs, or do they somehow let the poor Tohirov go?

Fontaine gets lots of mileage out of this question throughout the extended ride to CDG, stretching out the suspense as the officers debate what to do while Tohirov looks on with fear and trembling. (Conveniently, the man doesn’t speak a word of French or English. Like some other details in the script, this seems highly implausible.) The Iranian American Maadi, who starred in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and About Elly, brings a fierce level of tension to a role that doesn’t have him saying a single line for most of the running time, yet renders him the centerpiece of the action.

In the end, the petty and not-so-petty grievances between the three cops wind up paling in comparison to the fate of their captive, and the way Fontaine tries to tie the two plotlines together during the final reel is both glaringly manipulative and totally dubious. It’s too bad because for most of Night Shift the director delivers a solid, if somewhat familiar, drama that plays like a French Hillstreet Blues told from a female perspective, with Efira’s character constantly torn between her personal and professional desires. The problem is that Virginie’s story never really makes sense in light of Tohirov’s tragedy, unless it’s to say that as a woman she perhaps has more compassion for him than the others. But that also seems obvious and all too easy.

Eschewing the typical grittiness of most Paris-set cop flicks (the latest example being the very Wire-inspired Oscar nominee Les Misérables), Fontaine and cinematographer Yves Angelo opt for a warm color palette that highlights the intimacy between the four characters, especially within the closed confines of the van. A score of classical string music further adds to the film’s melancholic yet affectionate tone, in what’s probably one of the rare policiers in which a single gunshot isn't fired.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies: F comme Film, Cine-@, StudioCanal
Cast: Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Grégory Gadebois, Payman Maadi, Elisa Lasowsky
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriters: Anne Fontaine, Claire Barré, based on the novel ‘Police’ by Hugo Boris
Producers: Jean-Louis Livi, Philippe Carcassonne
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Arnaud de Moléron
Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Casting director: Pascale Béraud
Sales: StudioCanal

In French
98 minutes