Having braved difficult subject matter, POLISSE tracks the lives of police officers in a Parisian Child Protection Unit, diving into both their casework and private lives. It offers an intriguing vantage point. The use of close-ups and handheld camera sequences delivers ample intimacy; a viewer’s personal space is invaded immediately. The character of Melissa mirrors the director’s real life experience to some extent. Mawïenn (who also co-wrote the story with Emmanuelle Bercot) followed daily operations of one such police unit.
Viewers are subjected to a fictionalized, at times purposely exaggerated account of real-life events; however, some of the snippets we see, are designed to look like a documentary, as though the police and Melissa are followed by a film camera without a script in place. The viewer becomes the fly on the wall that she intended to be. Gradually, she is becoming the subject of the observation, rather than the dispassionate observer. Showing her being pulled into the camaraderie, the confrontations, and the assignments that the police share is clearly designed to allow the viewer to do the same. It is a permission – no, an explicit invitation to get involved emotionally. Moreover, Mawïenn chose to cast herself as her fictional alter ego. Melissa’s participation in the life of the unit entails a love affair with one of the cops, Fred.
This role was manned by Mawïenn’s love-interest at the time, a French-language rapper who goes by Joeystarr. This intermingling of reality and fiction is a territory where it’s easy to lose footing, yet the casting and the fleshing out of the character is a success. The complexity of all protagonists, with their personal histories and troubles addressed in brief but memorable scenes, keeps the viewer interested. A multitude of little vignettes that let us peek into the lives of the victims and the perpetrators, without offering much resolution, allow for dramatic phrasing with only short rest periods. This reflects the pace and the strain of the police work itself. We rest only when the cops rest. But even when they are not in the middle of interrogation, chases or arrests, the conflict is explicit in almost every scene. They struggle constantly, arguing with their superiors, with their spouses, getting divorced, losing custody, losing weight and sleep. There is an underlying tension, and we are offered no reprieve. Even the final scene is intended to shock, expecting a viewer to gulp it down without providing a chance to chew on it.
An entire layer is added by exploring the cultural backgrounds, the societal fabric of the various characters. A Roma pick-pocket – beaten, and burned with cigarettes by her own uncle, collaborates with the police, who then storm the settlement and remove children from their parents to place them into state custody. Naturally, the children are scared, unaware that the alternative is a lifetime of exploitation. Homeless woman of African descent comes to the station to surrender her son, because she cannot find a shelter that would house them both. Desperately she longs for her young child to escape destitution, even at a cost of never seeing him again. A wealthy man, who molests his own daughter, mocks the interrogators, knowing he will escape unscathed due to his connections. Two girlfriends on the police force get into a yelling match, when they finally realize that the things they are searching for, are not to be found in their friendship. Arguments about French politics ensue over lunch. Arguments about drinking are front and center at a nightclub outing. Arguments over service car availability take place at the headquarters. Even during quiet moments, the drama weaves itself into glances, postures, phrases, and seemingly innocent questions.
The audience is forced to acknowledge the universal vulnerability of human beings, obviously with a focus on children, but also the malice, ignorance, and selfishness that adults unleash onto each other and onto their offspring. The enormity of stress that befalls the police who take on criminal cases involving juvenile victims – how it damages and transforms them, yet how it also provides them with a tremendous opportunity to give of themselves and make a difference – is a weighty topic. But Mawïenn and Bercot handled themselves graciously. No sappiness is to be found, no sentiment rings false. The collaboration was indeed fruitful: the critical ingredient being sincerity. The performances are noteworthy all around. Marina Foïs, Joeystarr and Karin Viard may stand out because of the time allotted their characters on screen, but Audrey Lamy is equally memorable in her supporting turn as mother with bizarrely depraved parenting ideas. Nicholas Duvauchelle’s quiet rendition of a man in love with his married, pregnant team member, is nothing to frown upon. Naidra Ayadi won the 2012 César as the Most Promising Actress. (The film was nominated for César Awards in 13 categories and won the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.)
The fragmented nature of the plot, without a single decisive story arc to cling to, mimics the reality humans are faced with. Coherence and meaning is something we may bestow upon a string of unrelated events after the fact. The cohesion here is brought through caring, through involvement. Perhaps that is the greatest success of the filmmakers – making the audience feel, without spoon-feeding them the emotions. We are not provided regurtitated food with laugh tracks or overwrought dramatic score. It’s hard to find a single character that is one-dimensional, even among the villains. The police force members too are portrayed as flawed, as having experienced their share of failures. Their heroism lies in getting up every morning to face the same bleak reality where children are victimized. POLISSE does some serious, earnest storytelling. Thusly, it reveals more about humanity, which I dare maintain, is one of the functions of art – a job well done.