Polisse, a riveting cop procedural, follows a year in the lives of agents attached to the Children's Protection Unit (CPU) of the Paris police. Cowritten, directed, and starring the French actress Maiwenn and based on actual cases, this is keenly observed fiction packing the force, and rough edges, of fact.
The film's title is a franglais double entendre. A polisson is a sexually mischievous child; most of the children depicted in the course of this film are victims of sexually criminal adults. The mosaic of cases and caseworkers is like a season of The Wire distilled into two hours.
Maiwenn is Melissa, a photographer embedded in the unit who stands in for the audience. At first, she is stuck in the mire of deviant adults and vulnerable children. Then, she finds her feet, on the fly capturing the rhythms and dedication of the CPU unit at work and at play.
Like soldiers in a foxhole, the agents forge a family intimacy deeper than anything they share with spouses. The prosecution of sex crimes at work isn't exactly an aphrodisiac during the off hours. Other occupational hazards include the negative impact on agents' relationships with their children and the fear of having children of their own.
Take, for instance, an agent named Fred (nicely played by the rap artist Joeystarr). At work, he interrogates a man who molested his daughter in her bath. Then, Fred goes home and can't face bathing his own child. When she asks that he get in the bathtub with her like Mommy does, he stammers awkwardly, "Mommies can do things that daddies can't."
While the agents' tender depositions of traumatized children and harsher interviews with abusers are as harrowing as they are heroic, Maiwenn doesn't frame members of the CPU as supermen and women. To her (and co-screenwriter Emmanuelle Bercot, who plays Sue Ellen), the agents are fundamentally decent, but human.
One, a Muslim woman, loses her professional cool and practically throws the Quran at an imam who resists her interrogation. When he implies that religious law supersedes civil law, she demands: "Where in the Quran does it say women can't work?" Another dissolves into unsympathetic and inappropriate laughter while deposing a teenage victim of gang rape.
With its handheld camera work and lightning editing, the film is as adrenaline-pumped as its characters. While it is sometimes challenging to track all the story lines in this multicharacter story, the film rewards the patient viewer.
Where the typical American police drama is that of the cop battling a two-front war against the system and the lawless, Maiwenn's electrifying saga is about a fractious if ultimately cohesive group united in its advocacy for children. It would seem that one culture defines itself by what it's against and the other by what it's for.
Warning: While this unrated film discreetly implies rather than shows scenes of child abuse, one hospital sequence is so graphic that I had to look away.