Receiving the special jury award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film offers a foray into the lives of a group of French police officers working in the Child Protection Unit (CPU). The film does not focus strictly on the atrocities committed against children, however, preferring to study the tumultuous lives of the officers, it offers a perspective from the viewpoint of people trying to maintain their sanity amongst the chaos and puts forward a stronger emotional and human perspective on the subject. Maiwenn’s biggest weapon is her refusal to indulge in an exploitative emotional aspect that could have left the viewer angry; instead, she makes it clear through her cinema verite method that reality needs no embellishment.
Maiwenn stars as photographer Melissa, appointed by the Ministry of Interior to document the activities of the CPU for an official book. She joins a team of officers who love each other, who love their jobs and who believe that they have a higher purpose in life -- even though they are all the butt of jokes at the police station. Arguably, this unit’s missions are much more tormenting than those of the other units, for who can deny the rage felt dealing with pedophiles all day long.
The film does not follow a specific story arc but observes the officers together and individually as they deal with a variety of cases -- a grandfather molesting his granddaughter, a father raping his daughter, a Muslim father forcing his underage daughter into marriage, a teenage girl engaging in sexual favors for a smart phone, a gymnastics teacher showing too much “love” for his student. The list goes on, as we observe perpetrators and victims from all strata of society, ethnic groups and religions, although the film makes it a bit too abundantly clear that the children of the ethnic minorities in France seem to end up in more trouble than the ruling white class.
While we watch the officers deal with the cases, we are also invited into their private lives. Despite the noble intentions of their work and solid integrity, they all have extremely problematic family lives. While at home they try to engage in daily routines, their work seems to result in aggressive outbursts and emotional distance from their loved ones. It seems that the only people that they can connect with is each other. An unnecessary side story in which Melissa has an affair with one of the officers also adds extra complexities to the potpourri of the sad dispositions of the families. Maiwenn and her co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot manage to create substantial and relatable characters out of all the members of the unit, and we find ourselves worrying for them them as they make their way through days of intensely disturbing encounters with child abusers. The real problem of the film, though, is that the characters though highly likable, are so engaged in their work that they are almost portrayed as martyrs and angels. Obviously, this is not a malaise, since one would hope for officers who are this noble; however, the film is too in love with these characters and sometimes plunges into an overdose of camaraderie and valor.
Maiwenn’s character Melissa is undeniably brought into the story as a vehicle of documentation for cinematic purposes, but her presence turns out to be redundant in the story, even though she is trying to “capture the untainted truth” just like the film’s narration ambitions. However, the film is fueled with so much emotional intensity and is so engraved with the preference for the subjective eye as opposed to illustrating a larger picture that Melissa’s representation of the “outsider objective eye” does not function properly throughout the narrative. We could have just followed the officers without her lead and all would have been fine.
“Polisse” has it’s beautiful moments; the director’s decision to present the crimes committed against children through the humanistic and caring eyes of its officers offers a depth of compassion that not all films can achieve. Its ambitions lie in striving to reach genuineness and a belief that despite all odds there are people out there trying to make a difference, not to paint a general tableau of a corrupt system, horrible bureaucracy and the depravity of pedophiles, since the scenes pertaining to these concepts only occur during the moral missions of the CPU. Despite its fragmented story, occasional lack of rhythm and unsatisfying ending, “Polisse” is a significant cinematic work: It reminds us that out there, there are still some people, like those of the CPU, who make an effort to ensure that the world is a better place.