Poliss (Polisse): Cannes Review

Polisse - Movie Still - 2011
Cannes Film Festival
Emotionally compelling cop dramedy is an impressive leap for filmmaker-star Maiwenn.

Filmmaker-star Maiwenn's socially-minded film is packed with raw, visceral performances from an accomplished cast.

CANNES -- A powerhouse of emotional jolts, freewheeling comedy and socially-minded storytelling, Poliss (Polisse) reps an admirable step up for writer-director-actress Maiwenn, and one which should finally expand her audience beyond French borders. This extensive portrayal of officers working in a Parisian Child Protection Unit is packed with raw energy and visceral performances from an accomplished cast, and despite an unwieldy episodic structure, the film touches where it matters most.

Honing in on the fervent style that marked her self-confessional debut, Pardonnez-moi, and her mockumentary on Gallic stars, The Actress’ Ball, but applying it to a much broader playing field set within the world of pedophile crime investigations, the 35-year-old Maiwenn presents an engrossing network narrative that benefits from the impressive work of nearly a dozen talented French actors. Like a whole season of The Wire packed into a single two-hour-plus film, Poliss covers much ground, and even with its loose threads and frenzied structure, it convincingly jumps from laughter to tears and back again, never losing sight of the brutal realities at its core.

From its opening scene, in which a little girl tells one of the officers, Chrys (Karole Rocher), that her father sometimes “scratches her butt,” the film presents the difficulties in distinguishing truth from speculation in child sex abuse cases, especially when kids and parents offer conflicting testimonies, or take issue with police workers poking into their private lives. Maiwenn and co-writer-star Emmanuelle Bercot insert a number of such interrogations throughout the story, and they run the gamut from disturbing to hilarious to downright tragic, especially in one emotional wallop of a sequence where a little boy is separated from a mother who can’t provide him adequate shelter.

That moment occurs about midway through the movie, and that fact that it runs on for longer than expected is revealing of Maiwenn’s approach to such uneasy material. Instead of playing scenes safely via evocative cutaways or trying to up the cute factor whenever a kid appears on screen, she allows – like fellow French directors Abdellatif Kechiche or the late Maurice Pialat – for the intensity of the situation to take over in all its rawness. Another prime example is a late scene between two officers and sometime buddies, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois), whose explosive office shouting match is something to behold.

Very much like David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series, Poliss concentrates on the strain the job puts on policemen and women who deal day in day out with hard knocks cases and bureaucratic pigeonholing, and how that affects their generally chaotic home lives. In fact, all of them, including Melissa (Maiwenn), the timid photographer who’s been commissioned by the Interior Ministry to document the unit’s activities, are undergoing either a divorce, a separation, or are defiantly and unhappily single. While these cops work very hard to mend other peoples’ nightmares, they are unable, through the sheer exhaustion of their métier, to take care of themselves, relying on each other for all kinds of support, friendship, or, in a few instances, love.

Their work hard, play hard attitude is best exemplified by Fred (Joeystarr), a wiry cop whose estrangement from his own daughter makes him take every case to heart, putting him increasingly at odds with a superior (Frederic Pierrot) who caves in too easily to the power above. French rapper Joeystarr, who has gone from shouting “fuck the police” to portraying one incredibly well here, is perfectly on point with the film’s constant temperature changes, and provides one of its comic highlights when Fred interrogates a teenage girl who performed fellatio to get back a stolen cell phone.

If that doesn’t sound like comic material, Maiwenn manages to make it so, and what in another filmmaker’s hands would have seemed merely provocative has an honesty and spontaneity to be reckoned with. Whether performances were improvised or not is unclear, but they’re reigned in enough to feel polished and real. Ditto for the tech, which feels free and unmannered as it captures the grittier neighborhoods of northeast Paris, though it never drops to the handheld quirks of many a young director.

If the film suffers from anything, its the writers’ choice to shove in so many plots, subplots, and episodes within its limited running time, and the finale especially takes a turn that doesn’t seem warranted by what preceded it.

Per press notes, the title comes from Maiwenn’s own son’s misspelling of the word, but was also a way to distinguish her film from Pialat’s 1985 drama, Police.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch
Production companies: Les Productions du Tresor, Arte France Cinema, Mars Films, Chaocorp, Shortcom
Cast: Karin Viard, Joeystarr, Marina Fois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Maiwenn, Karole Rocher, Emmanuelle Bercot, Frederic Pierrot, Arnaud Henriet
Director: Maiwenn
Screenwriters: Maiwenn, Emmanuelle Bercot
Producer: Alain Attal
Director of photography: Pierre Aim
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Marite Coutard
Editors: Laure Gardette, Yann Dedet
Music: Stephen Warbeck
No rating, 127 minutes