‘Polisse’ is Law & Order SVU French-style

Maiwenn wrote (with Emmanuelle Bercot) and directed this disturbing movie about the Paris police department’s child protection unit. Fans of “Law & Order SVU” might find this movie both intriguing and discomforting.

Maiwenn doesn’t give us a procedural with neatly compartmentalized segments, dividing up the police work, the prosecutors strategizing and the closure of the victim’s stories. The movie, shot documentary style, instead gives us unsteady cam and a rush of anger and confusion as we follow the squad in their work and their social lives.

By never seeing the verdicts on the defendants, something that the officers apparently rarely know either, we feel as if there’s a constant flow of evil and degradation without any reward. One grandparent, parent or teacher caught and yet the damage is done and are the kids really saved?

Even the children whom they are trying to save, don’t seem to understand the consequences of their actions. One girl leads a “friend” to a place to be raped and defends her actions while in custody, declaring that the officers are too old to understand how things are. Another girl who performed oral sex in order to get her cell phone back, weakly explains that it was a “smart phone” after all but is only met with the snickering and barrage of laughter from all the officers. Has sex really become that casual or do girls have such low self-esteem?

The political correctness policies aren’t enforced. No one scolds the officers for laughing at this girl and there is a scene where one officer goes too far in anger at a suspect. But sometimes it’s not a question of doing the right thing because there is no good answer.  There’s a gut-wrenching moment when a child is forcibly taken from his parent–not because the mother is abusive, but simply because she is poor and has not place for them to sleep.

The officers also stage a raid on gypsies, which suggests cultural bias and a clash between ancient ways and modern considerations, similarly illustrated when an officer questions a Muslim man who won’t give her any respect because she is a woman.

While the leader of this squad is a man, at the center are two women, partners Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois). Nadine is divorcing and Iris attempts to help yet seems to harbor poisonous thoughts about men, perhaps as a result of their daily work. It’s not just the women who are adversely affected by confronting such evils and sexual perversity;  the men as well are shell-shocked by their exposure to the constant betrayal of children’s innocent trust.

Inspired by a documentary about the child protection unit she saw on television, Maiwenn researched the topic by following the officers. The movie is based on things she either witnessed or the officers told her about.

Maiwenn has assembled a top notch cast.  The actors playing the police are of various races, but were chosen to represent a blue collar toughness. Rather than the glamour of “Law & Order SVU” think “Cagney and Lacey” if you can remember back that far (1981-1988). What little makeup the women wear, it doesn’t make them look like former models, but weary workers who don’t have time for mascara and eyeliner.

The power is in the authentic feel. Viard who plays Nadine has won two César Awards: one for Best Actress for “Haut les coeurs!”  and one for Best Supporting Actress for “Embrassez qui vous voudrez.”  She was nominated for her role in “Polisse” as ell.

Fois has been nominated for a César three times (2003 for “Hypnoticed and Hysterical (Hairstylist Wanted),” in 2007 for “Darling” and this year for “Polisse.”

The 44-year-old rapper Joeystarr who portrays the hot-headed Fred, certainly has the street cred. He had lived on the streets before making it as a hip hop rap artist. Since then, he’s been criticized for violent outbursts, and  was once sentenced to prison for assault.

Maiwenn herself appears at a mousy reporter on assignment who becomes involved with Fred. That relationship transforms her in a way that is too predictable. Her co-writer Bercot also appears as one of the officers.

As other critics have noted, Maiwenn (Le Besco) might know something about exploitation of young girls. As the daughter of an actress (Catherine Belkhodja), she began her career as a child and was about 15 when she met the 32-year-old director/producer Luc Besson in 1991. At 16, she was a Beverly Hills wife and had a daughter by Besson. Besson would leave her to marry the 22-year-old Milla Jovovich.

After her break up with Besson, Maiwenn returned to France and became a stand-up comedienne. In 2007, she wrote and directed “Pardonnez-moi” which was nominated for two César Awards. This movie, “Polisse,”  won the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize and was nominated for 14 César Awards including Fois, Viard, and Joeystarr as actors and Maiwenn for Director, Best Film and Best Screenplay with Bercot.

This is a little over two-hours of tough-talking, tumultuous stories told without closure or a happy endings that leaves you feeling worn down by the barrage of evil and apathy. How much worse it must be to live inside this hellish crusade to protect the children.

In French with English subtitles.

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