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Leonard Quart: June 2012 Archives

June 2012 Archives

Polisse: Hard Labor

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David Simon’s brilliant TV series, “The Wire,” ran for five seasons receiving only modest ratings and predictably never winning a major television award. But critics exulted in the power and social acuity of the series. Just like great American urban, naturalistic novels (e.g., Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) “The Wire” richly explored the structure and ethos of urban institutions. Each season it evoked the deeply flawed nature of a Baltimore social or political institution —labor unions, the schools, municipal politics and the press. But running throughout and dominating the program were the drug gangs who dominate and despoil the inner city’s streets and the police unit of flawed characters that attempts to bring them down with limited success. In “The Wire,” every member of the police unit is individualized —not one is stereotypical — and the actors work seamlessly as an ensemble.

French Writer-director-actress Maiwenn’s third film, Polisse, attempts to do for Paris’ Child Protection Unit what “The Wire” did for Baltimore’s narcotics unit. The film was based on Maïwenn’s experiences being embedded in the unit, and the screenplay’s cases were true rather than fictional. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and in 2012, was nominated for 13 Cesar Awards (the French version of the Academy Awards).

Despite the awards, “Polisse” is not in the same league as “The Wire.” It’s similar in its episodic structure, in its neo-documentary, hand-held camera style, and in granting screen time to a great many characters. But it doesn’t have five television seasons to expand on and illuminate this immense canvas. So “Polisse” can feel overloaded with sub-plots and characters, which remain undeveloped, and the film also contains a few scenes, like the screaming match between female partners, that tend to histrionic excess.

What it does have is a first-class cast who, in the main, convincingly play working-class Parisian cops, and a genuine feeling for the stresses of a difficult job that can be all consuming. “Polisse” holds one’s attention as the cops handle agonizing cases ranging from child abuse and abduction, to a pickpocketing ring of Gypsy children, a rape of young girl, and pedophilia (handled with restraint). The film also does not shy away from the complexities involved in distinguishing truth from speculation in child sex abuse cases, especially when children and parents offer conflicting testimonies. Much of what transpires seems believably part of their everyday work.

We never do see any of the cases brought to conclusion in the film — its narrative is very loose and fragmented — for what’s most important to Maiwenn is how the daily traumas they encounter impact on the psyches of the members of this tight-knit unit. The policemen and women, married or not, prime social and personal relationships are with the other members of the unit. They have lunch and gossip together, celebrate at night at a disco after a child who is close to death survives, and even indulge in an animated game of charades after a group dinner. And the work does help to make their marriages problematic, since the unit, who shares the intensity, pain and exhilaration of the job, tend to be more intimate with each other, their surrogate family, than with their spouses.

The most striking character in the film is Fred (volatile rapper Joeystarr from Martinique), who is the most rebellious and tempestuous of the unit (he’s angrily at odds with his chief, who tends to accommodate those in power). Fred takes every case to heart, especially where he tries to help a homeless African immigrant mother and her wailing, emotionally bereft son find shelter. It’s a poignant and powerful scene, and it’s clear that Fred’s emotional identification with the boy in this situation is heightened by his inability to see the daughter he dotes on very often. Still, Fred, like the other cops in the unit, wants to be of help but has no illusions that he can make the world a better place.

Fred also has an affair with Zaia (lifelessly played by the director), a meek photographer who is assigned to document the CPU day to day. Her assignment seems pointless, and her main function in the film is to have an utterly banal affair with Fred. The film also tends to bump up the shock and action in some scenes, the director feeling that the film’s gritty authenticity is insufficient to attract a large audience. So she provides us with a rape victim giving birth to a dead baby, a special ops unit stakeout in a shopping mall that is irrelevant to the film and ends in violence, and the unexpected suicide of one of the policewoman to provide an added jolt.

The film doesn’t aim at being a portrait of contemporary Paris, but the image of the city that is projected is one whose streets are filled with immigrants and is devoid of beauty. In fact, a number of the cases they deal with involve immigrant cultures whose norms are at odds with the French legal system. It’s clearly a very different city from the one that graced the films of the French New Wave of Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut almost a half a century ago. No, “Polisse” isn’t “The Wire,” but despite its sketchy characterizations, and its straining to reach a mass audience, it’s true to the hard reality of doing police work that deals with the horrific — the exploitation of children.
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