NOMINATED for a record-breaking 13 César Awards (French Oscars) – and winner of the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – this urgent, fly-on-the-wall affair plays out like a grittier big-screen take on its more famous US TV-related cousins, with just two hours to spare.
French beauty Maiwenn – a former child star who, at 16, had a daughter with filmmaker Luc Besson, after becoming estranged from her parents – brings gravitas and understanding to the unpleasant work of Paris’s CPU (Child Protection Unit). Armed with reams of on-the-ground research, the writer-director-actor collates months of material, based on real-life cases, into a rapid-fire docudrama that focuses on the daily lives of the team as they give their work their all. Their lives are all but consumed by it.
Maiwenn – in Australia earlier this month, to help promote the film – found that, like her character Melissa, she too faced suspicion and opposition to her working within the real-life CPU, prior to the making of the film. As with all matters relating to the safety of children – and the detention of those who harm them (both physically and mentally) – a degree of caution against anything vaguely sensational was inevitable. And while the drama itself may unfold at a rate of knots – with an often deafening barrage of voices all arguing their corner simultaneously – the film proves both astute and emotionally engaging: a largely convincing NYPD Blue, if you will, displaying the inner frustrations of a team simply trying to do their job.
A quite extraordinary cast helps to push POLISSE far and beyond its seemingly banal setting. Most notable of all is French rapper Joeystarr: a revelation as the hot-tempered, deeply passionate figure of Fred – a man who has no qualms about turning his chief’s office upside down, aghast at the pecking order that prevents them picking up a pedophile suspect. Francophiles will also notice Jeremie Elkaim, star of the recent DECLARATIONOF WAR, as one of his colleagues, among the roll call of talent present.
What balances POLISSE out so nicely, though, is the humour within the team, which evidently keeps them going. A night out on the town after a typically grueling day proves a funky treat – where a number of them prove equally adept on the dance floor – as does a pizza night, playing charades, where a win is, seemingly, everything. Such moments afford the viewer the chance to cool off and have fun with the film’s chief protagonists, before dawn brings fresh challenges (and suspects).
The crimes the CPU investigate are, not surprisingly, both unpleasant and shocking in their cruelty. One elderly man reluctantly confesses that his hand may have “slipped” when he’s accused point blank of assaulting his granddaughter, while another attempts to wriggle out of punishment through his top-floor connections. The system, it would seem, stinks. And for some, the pain and injustice of it all proves to be too much.
It is this last point that some have raised objection to, pointing to a fundamental flaw within the film that undermines all that has gone before it all. A sudden, unexpected twist does indeed await. And, without revealing its specific detail, it does certainly feel out of step with proceedings. But such issues should be forgiven and dismissed – for, overall, POLISSE is an impressive achievement that presents its subject in a heated, engaging but not hysterical fashion: a rare feat for any filmmaker.
Maiwenn – now something of a role model for female filmmakers with this, her third feature – revealed her frustration to me regarding the film’s perception at Cannes. Not because of the subject matter, mind: rather, about her. “Some people, they like to think I’ve somehow had it easy,” she said. “That I haven’t had to work for [success].” Given her troubled teen experiences, one imagines such jibes to be born out of professional jealously. (The film’s record-breaking list of Cesar nods even surpassed THE ARTIST’s, even if it ultimately won just two.)
Now, having screened locally at festivals both in Melbourne (last year) and Sydney (last week), audiences here can finally see what all the fuss has been about. Aside from a super-tight script and a fine ensemble cast, POLISSE has an added weight that’s deftly handled by Maiwenn. Having been bowled over by it at Cannes last year, I remain enthralled by its vision, its execution, its unrelenting dedication to its remit. For that alone, its creator must be applauded.
Critical Rating: 8/10.
POLISSE is in cinemas from Thursday.
First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age.