Writer, director and actor Maiwenn’s new film, Polisse, is a dramatic feature about a Parisian Police Child Protection Unit that absorbs one in its often difficult and upsetting subject matter but also struggles with its challenging tone. Weaving a variety of overlapping stories together, we are told in an opening title card that these are based on real events, Maiwenn chooses to guide us through the professional and private chaos of the CPU team via a new addition to the team, a photographer named Melissa (played by Maiwenn herself).
Melissa is a near silent observer for the first half of the film but after fellow team member Fred (Joey Starr) draws her real character out we begin to see her fragmented private life, involving an almost absurdly contrived family set-up, and she (literally) begins to let her hair down. This is not a film about Melissa though, despite her appearances in some scenes pulling focus, the film is really about the team and the work they do.
This story of police officers doing their job is told in a way that is very reminiscent of the kind of embedded reportage drama that has worked so well for people such as David Simon. Maiwenn is certainly no David Simon though and rather than gradually feeling completely drawn into the slowly unfolding story and absorbing characters we are occasionally pulled out of the film due to a number of clunky tonal misfires and at the film’s lowest points, maudlin self indulgence. Maiwenn does not admittedly have the kind of extensive runtime that show-runners such as David Simon have to play with and although this fault, to say it plays very much like a TV pilot that I would happily recommend with the hope that it gets even better, seems like a minor one, this is a single film and is therefore a little underwhelming as one.
Polisse does have strong moments though and the cumulative effect of these leads to intense and oddly cathartic releases. These are often reliant on tonal leaps and emotionally impactful sequences that although incredibly effective in places, such as a woman dropping a baby in a way that had many in the cinema physically unsettled, ultimately rely on slightly cheap techniques.
The tone of the film also flies wildy between the intensely serious work that the CPU do, the very soapy sex and love that occupies them off duty and the gallows humour that helps get them through the day-to-day grind of reports of child molestation, deceased infants, abusive parents and casually sexually active teens. Whilst it is probably very likely that this kind of inappropriate humour was something that Maiwenn witnessed first hand in researching for the film, a friend working in a similar field has informed me of the need for humour to disconnect one from the horror day-to-day, the application of this within the film is lacking in places. It is hard though not to find oneself laughing at times as Maiwenn manages to manipulate a scene in a way in which the humour is perfectly timed and whilst it is certainly unsettling to find any of it funny it is vital to a feeling of appreciating the need for the joking around. Problematically though there are a few too many instances in which the CPU members appear like monstrous cackling hyenas that seem intent on belittling victims of abuse. This would most likely not be as harmful to the film if the characters were less broadly drawn and given a little more time to breathe.
In striving for too much too quickly Maiwenn fails to create a complete experience in Polisse but the cumulative effect of the film is still reasonably strong and it is a confident, if occasionally misjudged, and impactful drama.