The Branch of the Paris police force known as the Child Protection Unit, or CPU, has a hard job day in and day out. They deal with creeps, perverts, and pedophiles, and not all of the suspects are adults. Some of the perps are also kids: Teens who ransom stolen cell phones by offering oral sex ("And for a laptop?" inquires one CPU cop dryly), teens who strip and jiggle for web cams, teens who lure unsuspecting peers into gang rapes.
The other cops don’t offer the kid protection unit much respect; because the CPU’s bailiwick is partly law enforcement and partly social work, cops in other divisions seem to look down on them, offering flack when it takes CPU officers caught in traffic 20 minutes to arrive at a scene where an infant is critically injured and referring to them as "extras" when CPU officers lend their efforts to a sting operation involving stolen gemstones.
"Polisse," co-written and directed by a filmmaker with only one name, Maïwenn, feels a bit like a documentary and a bit like a reality show. A notification at the film’s start informs us that the episodes in the film are inspired by actual events, and the movie is stuffed with criminal incident, jumping from one grotesque outrage to the next with metronomic regularity and escalating shock value. It’s like seeing an onion of revolting sins peeled away layer by putrid layer, the rot growing blacker with each scene.
But there are many redeeming qualities present to balance things out. The film sparkles with sudden bursts of humor, and it’s like sunlight breaking through clouds; the cops identify with the juvenile perps and victims, and the movie is structured so as to communicate this effectively and intuitively. In one scene, a group of terrified Romanian children, taken into police custody because the adults in their family were using them as pint-sized pickpockets, cheer up to a pop song and start dancing; later, a scene at a club parallels this, with the cops cutting loose on the dance floor. The child is parent to the adult, even for those who carry a badge.
Maïwenn’s camera is not the one that accompanies the officers on their daily excursions into a Purgatory of vice; Melissa, an uptight photographer played by Maïwenn herself, documents the officers’ travails and successes. She’s been assigned to the unit by the police chief, a politicking toady who at one point orders a child-raping scumbag with connections to be accorded the kid glove treatment. Melissa is, at first, a knot of distress; she’s out of her comfort zone, and when a hotheaded officer named Fred rails on her in the midst of a long, tedious, and nerve-wracking assignment, it’s to point out the vapid and sensationalist work she’s done thus far.
But Maïwenn’s is the only camera that follows the officers home, where we see that their families and private lives are scarcely those of paragons. Iris (Marina Foïs) and her husband struggle to conceive, but Iris, who seems jaded and hard-bitten, is bulimic. It’s an open question as to whether she even could carry a child to term, given the way she abuses her body. (Her approach toward others is just as bad: At one point she encourages a pregnant rape victim who has just undergone an abortion to choose a name she dislikes and give it to the fetus.)
Iris is partnered with Nadine (Karin Viard), a 40-year-old woman going through a divorce. Nadine’s husband had an affair, and Iris won’t let her forget it. What Iris glosses over is the fact that Nadine, too, had an affair. "He was following his cock," Iris sniffs. "You were following your heart.... Feelings are noble. A cock is just icky." One wonders whether that sentiment might have something to do with the indecorous way in which Iris sends her own husband packing early on.
Fred (Joey Starr), whose home life is as fraught as his on-the-job performance, finds himself similarly booted from the family domicile. Taking refuge on the couch of his superior, Capt. "Baloo" Gerard (Frédéric Pierrot), Fred quickly learns that not all is well even between Baloo and his wife, who have a reputation as a constantly amorous couple. Instead of hearing their cries of passion, Fred hears their heated argument over who has the more stressful and miserable job. In short order, Baloo joins Fred on the couch.
The younger cops are a little more idealistic, both about their work and their lives. Mathieu (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a good looking horndog, vows to give up casual sex and start looking for a meaningful relationship; when fellow CPU officer Chrys (Karole Rocher) confides that she’s pregnant, it’s not hard to figure out that she’s not telling him as a friend. Gabriel (Jérémie Elkaïm), another handsome young ’un, interjects himself into the heated arguments that frequently erupt as the stressed out cops vent at one another; he sounds like a moderator, which makes his more thick-skinned colleagues laugh and mock him. Sue Ellen (Emmanuelle Bercot) similarly throws herself into the thick of the workplace brawls, with a grin and with sass.
Some day, someone at HBO or FX might use this film as a seed for a series; if they do it right, it could make for some powerfully compelling TV viewing. In the meantime, this sampler of a movie is worth a viewing as much for the dramatic possibilities it implies as for the raw emotional force of its subject matter and the troubling issues it raises, such as the traditionalist Muslim father who wishes to force his daughter into a marriage against her will, the confused pain of a parent facing questions over a child’s bath time, or the kid who, disturbingly, confesses his affection for an abuser. (Any of these could easily be expanded into full episodes. Hello, Emmy?)
The film’s concentrated nature has an inevitable downside in that "Polisse" often feels like a mashup of clips from a full season of just such a cable channel drama. The film is sometimes so abrupt in switching from storyline to storyline, from cops to creeps, and from office to living room that it’s easy to start feeling disoriented. But pay close attention, and the story lines do eventually untangle and resolve; tough questions do emerge, defined, from the nebulous morass; and the movie throws a few emotional haymakers that may be calculated but still pack a wallop.