Film Review: Polisse

Fact-based crime drama about a Parisian squad assigned to child-abuse cases is a dual powerhouse that explodes with both the breaches of the perps and personal turmoils within the force.

Showcased at world-class festivals, winner of a Cannes jury prize, and honored with 13 César nominations, Maïwenn’s Polisse arrives stateside with considerable expectations and delivers the goods. Packing action, personal dramas and true crime-inspired situations into nonstop entertainment (even at 127 minutes), this hard-driving drama won’t disappoint art-house crowds.

With a large ensemble of characters on both sides of the law, Polisse follows a police squad of men and women working closely together in Paris’ Child Protection Unit. This close-knit group (featuring such familiar faces as Nicolas Duvauchelle, Frédéric Pierrot, Karin Viard and Marina Foïs) investigates cases involving child neglect and abandonment, molestation, kids left homeless and the forced marriages of underage girls. Stars playing witnesses or perps who reveal that not all exploiters of children come from the underclass include Sandrine Kiberlain and Louis-Do De Lencquesaing.

Beyond the emotionally draining police work are the no less grueling personal dramas of the unit’s many officers, most of whose lives are in various degrees of turmoil. There are marriages thrown against the rocks, adultery, bitter antagonisms within the force, problems with alcohol, breakdowns and even suicide. On the lighter side but not immune to professional and personal pressures are cop Fred (Joeystarr) and photojournalist Melissa (filmmaker Maïwenn), who’s assigned to follow the unit. Their growing mutual attraction threads through the film like a much-needed refreshing drizzle. Police superintendent Sue Ellen (the film’s writer Emmanuelle Bercot) functions as the ballast who brings an occasional calm to the stormy seas of this punishing police work.

Incidents requiring the Child Protection officers often involve immigrant populations from Africa, Eastern Europe, the Muslim world or the native downtrodden. Among the exceptions are Madame de la Faublaise (Kiberlain) and her husband (De Lencquesaing), who is secretly sexually abusing their daughter, an act oft repeated by a phys-ed teacher who gets too physical with his boys.

Polisse is not interested in whether or not those investigated are brought to justice. The emphasis is on the now—the grueling now. That the officers hang together so much for meetings, raids, partying, interrogations and sharing of personal problems suggests an oddly French phenomenon of crowd-policing. But such bonding has appeal and film-going crowds may want to be part of it.