Child abuse is a very tricky theme. It’s just such a horrific fact of life that dramatic depictions often feel heavy-handed and trite. With very few opportunities for levity or relief, however heavy and depressing they are, it’s all just bit forgettable. But Polisse is the type of film that lives with you for days and weeks after watching. One of those where everyone files out of the cinema in a stunned silence, still not sure whether to laugh or cry. It was the deserved winner of the Cannes 2011 Jury Prize.
Maïwenn of spent an incredible amount of time ‘interning’ with the Child Protection Unit of the Parisian police. She followed them everywhere building up research, from their lunch hours, to the holding cells, to their after work drinks. The result is an astounding and deeply affecting piece of verbatim filmmaking. Inspired entirely by what Maïwenn saw and heard during her time with the French Police, there are unbelievable moments that ring more true than many documentaries. The verbatim style does away with any notions you might have had that fiction could be anywhere near as strange as the truth that is told in Polisse.
Very true to her own research experience, in the film Melissa (Maïwenn) is an unimposing photojournalist, trailing the Parisian Child Protection unit. Like a fly on the wall, she doggedly trails them in silence as the episodic narrative uncovers class, race, gender, and the extreme burden of responsibility held by the Child Protection officers. She sees how they cope and, more interestingly, how they don’t. Seeking an escape from her mundane, privileged life, she enters a world of unbelievable atrocities and the incredibly believable people who spend all day and most nights saving the lives of Paris’ most vulnerable children.
It’s a relentlessly and increasingly horrid ordeal to watch the first 40 minutes. The sheer volume of gut-churning content is overwhelming. Until, the point when there comes an absolute masterstroke of beautifully subtle and twisted humour. A tiny moment, no less dark than the rest, but such a profoundly well-observed moment of humanness, that it’s just hilarious. At the moment that we can find humour in the horror, and share a laugh with the characters, that’s when we’re in the trenches with them. Watching it, we become as desensitised as they are. And that’s when Polisse really starts to plumb the depths.
Overall, this is a remarkable example of ensemble filmmaking. But the central couple are actually a bit gross together. Their relationship is a pretty unforgivable moral lapse, which may fly a little easier on the continent than in the UK or the States. But despite the main romantic thread being so stressfully and adulterously complicated and despite none of the characters showing any signs of overcoming any of their crippling emotional problems, there is a brilliance about Polisse that betrays such a complex understanding of psychology and characterisation that it’s almost uplifting.
You know that noise that people make when they hear someone hasn’t seen The Wire yet? They grab you by the elbow, normally, unable to form complete words “Gaah! You’ve got to see it!” they say. This film is like two seasons of The Wire crammed into two hours. The sense of chaos is palpable through the whirlwind edit, cut from 150 hours of footage and it is an emotional kick in the stomach. See this film.