Here in the UK Maïwenn is better known for her performances in front of the camera than she is for her efforts behind it. Polisse marks her fourth film as director, though most audiences will more readily recognise her name thanks to turns in Alexandre Aja’s Switchblade Romance (where she shared top billing with Cécile de France) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (where she played the opera-singing alien Diva Plavalaguna). Despite the association with genre movies, Polisse is anything but. Taking us behind the scenes of a French Child Protection Unit (CPU) and drawing many of its cases from real life, this is a naturalistic, and often shockingly frank, portrayal of a group of police officers as they go about lives, both on- and off-duty.
Maïwenn opted to shoot Polisse on multiple digital cameras, thus maintaining a certain documentary veneer. In effect she is leaving the film in the hands of her more than capable ensemble cast, allowing their scenes together to unfold at their own natural pace, unworried by overlapping dialogue or any potential rough edges. Indeed, Polisse is anything but smooth. Its characters are not one-dimensional heroic types forever saving the day. Instead they’re just ordinary people trying to do an extremely difficult job. They have good traits and bad traits. They can be in high spirits or their emotions can overspill in the office. In a nutshell, nobody’s perfect. Similarly, the film isn’t structured in any kind of streamlined fashion. There are no major plot strands or sense of narrative build. Rather cases come and go and we gain glimpses into the personal lives of the men and women who make up the CPU. The closest we get to a framework comes from Maïwenn herself, here playing a photojournalist capturing the Unit from the inside – much like her own movie, in fact.
For the most part, this approach works especially well. The subject matter is compulsive enough and doesn’t need to be dressed up. The bluntness – whether it be the no-nonsense dialogue or moments such as the abortion scene – packs its own punch. The no-fuss, no-frills style of acting also rewards. Occasionally it can seem a touch too highly pitched (there are a lot of raised emotions and voices during Polisse’s two-hours-plus), but for the most part it’s the human qualities which shine through. Furthermore, Maïwenn’s cast feel like a genuine ensemble – it’s impossible to pick a standout, which is exactly as it should be. One actor should be mentioned, however, and that is Maïwenn’s co-star and co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot. In 1999 she appeared in Bertrand Tavernier’s It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujord’hui) which utilised similar docudrama techniques to get under the skin of the teaching profession. Seven years earlier Tavernier had done much the same with a Parisian narcotics division for L.627 and it’s hard not to see the influence on Polisse. The same grit, naturalism and handheld camerawork were all in place.
Of course, this kind of approach has long since been co-opted by television as viewers of, say, The Shield will readily attest. Whereas once L.627 seemed wonderfully immediate and undoubtedly cinematic, Polisse – for all its qualities – cannot help but feel a little like a TV pilot. The range of cases (some big, some small; some shocking, some humorous) and the insights into these officers’ lives (complete with divorces, affairs and all manner of relationship problems) could easily translate into multi-part series without having to change a thing. In fact I’m somewhat surprised, especially given the film’s success at Cannes and multiple César nominations, that this hasn’t yet become the case.
Whereas France issued Polisse onto an extras-laden Blu-ray (albeit with those extras being non-English friendly), here in the UK the film arrives on disc in the DVD format only and with just a trailer as back-up. With that said, this region-free offering does look spectacularly good, doing full justice to the digital video origins. The image is expectedly pristine, wonderfully sharp and full of detail. Colour and contrast levels also appear as intended. The film is framed at 1.78:1 and comes with optional English subtitles to accompany the choice of either DD2.0 or DD5.1 soundtracks. Both cope fine with the dialogue-heavy mix.
Up close and personal with a French Child Protection Unit.