This winner of last year’s Jury Prize at Cannes is probably the most comprehensive, honest movie about child abuse ever made. Co-written and directed by female filmmaker Maïwenn, it is based on true stories from the Child Protective Services Unit of the Paris police. It is a fluid, tough, funny, intimate, extremely well made ensemble piece about a group of committed men and women who intervene to protect kids from all kinds of abuse. It is also the farthest you are ever going to travel from the sanitized heroics of American TV shows like Special Victims Unit. The blunt honesty of Polisse is unthinkable in the US. I can’t even picture HBO doing it, although I can picture them trying.
If Polisse sounds sordid, it is not. It is tough as nails, and also funny, gripping, entertaining and smart. It deftly weaves the professional exploits of the unit’s members with their personal stories. It shows them in action and at rest. They are really a tight clique and their work is so tough, that although they are all heroic, they are also prone to outbursts, violence, substance abuse, arrogance, insolence and all kinds of emotional ups and downs. Maïwenn — who appears as a photographer documenting the unit’s daily work — and her actors achieve a degree of camaraderie and spontaneity that feels almost documentary. It is the best ensemble acting I have seen in a long time.
The police are blunt, sarcastic, outraged and self-righteous. They have complicated love lives and are used to screaming at their bosses with impunity. Even if it is acted and scripted, the movie sets up realistically, without any exposition, how each one of the cops deals with the aftermath of each case. For instance, the chief upstairs allows one of his underlings to throw a violent fit in his office, because the boss refuses to make a special phone call to find a shelter for a homeless African woman and her boy. There are no grandiose speeches; as the cases pile up, one instinctively understands that these cops are given a lot of slack because of their line of work.
Every scene that deals with the abuse and exploitation of children is intense, but not overwrought. The kids are incredible. But the scene of this African woman and her kid will tear your heart to shreds. Still, Polisse is not a conventionally sentimental movie. It has many moments of grace and visceral power. If at times it threatens to veer into sentimentality, it is more around the private lives of the cops, than around the children’s issues, which it treats with astounding lucidity. Polisse is also a vast microcosm of life in France. Child abuse is one instance of human activity that transcends social class. So it’s a wide scope of human degradation, from Gypsy encampments, to coddled rich assholes with connections, to clueless teenagers, to working class monsters, to junkies, to even a confused pedophile who is devastated by the harm he causes but cannot help it. There is nothing black and white in this film. The movie refrains from judging, and it portrays the offenders as the human beings they are, but the cops are the avenging angels and they tend to let their anger loose in a way that is cathartic for the audience.
There is a fantastic scene in which a French Arab policewoman confronts a Muslim man, an Imam perhaps, who intends to give his underage daughter in marriage to someone somewhere. This is against French law. The scene is not about the law, it turns out, but about the contempt the man shows for the policewoman. It starts in French but soon he tells her in Arabic she should be married and ashamed of herself. She rips him apart and this female cop loses it. Years of her own history with her parents, her culture, the difficulty of being of her culture in a place like France, her pride and shame and everything she’s had to go through to get to where she is, all of it explodes in a magnificent outburst. It encompasses France’s recent history of unresolved culture clashes in a couple of minutes. In another remarkable scene the detectives make fun, somehow deservedly, of a teenager as they interview her. She is an idiot and they are cruel to her, and there is no real attempt to justify them. They are tough, worn out and sometimes jaded, but they are also passionate and consumed by their work.
The actors are all miraculous. Polisse is reminiscent of that other French social realistic marvel, The Class. It is a remarkably luminous film about human darkness.