Polisse (Sundance Selects, NR)

polisse sqIn appearance, this is a deliberately ugly film, the shaky cinematography and apparent reliance on natural light outdoors suggesting television footage shot none too expertly.


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There seems to be some particularly Gallic attraction to the fact-based, semi-improvised feature film. First we had Laurent Cantet’s The Class (winner of the Palme d’Or in 2008), and now Maïwenn’s Polisse (winner of the 2011 Jury Prize at Cannes), which offers glimpses at the working and private lives of police officers a  for Paris’ Child Protection Unit. In case you didn’t know, that means they deal with crimes committed against minors, including physical abuse and sexual molestation, and sad to say, they’re not lacking for work in modern-day Paris.

I enjoyed The Class a good deal more than I did Polisse, in part because The Class had a built-in dramatic structure provided by the progress of the school year, while Polisse gives you the feeling of dropping in on random moments in the daily lives of people doing a very difficult job. It’s a well-done film, but also leaves me a little cold, even as I admire the way Maïwenn is willing to forego most of the stock button-pushing moments of the typical police drama.

The film that Polisse most reminds me of is David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, set on the last night of the summer and involving large numbers of teenagers wandering in and out of each other’s lives. Even in Mitchell’s film, however, there was a time constraint (the last night of the summer—American Graffiti, anyone?) to give an edge to the otherwise ordinary events on screen.

Polisse has characters, to be sure, and all the actors do a perfectly fine job in their roles. There’s Iris (Marina Fois), Nadine (Karin Viard), Mathieu (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Chrys (Karole Rocher), Balloo (Frederic Pierrot), and Fred (Joeystarr), and they have various traits and life stories—it’s just that you’ve heard and seen it all before. Fred is a hothead, Chrys is pregnant, Mathieu has the hots for someone he can’t have, Nadine is getting a divorce, etc., etc. Maïwenn appears on camera as a police photographer documenting the unit’s work, and while she’s fine, she doesn’t make much of an impression, either.polisse poster

In appearance, Polisse is a deliberately ugly film, the shaky cinematography and apparent reliance on natural light outdoors suggesting television footage shot none too expertly. The story is messy, as well, with overlapping narratives that progress in fits and starts. The director is presumably making points about how real life doesn’t divide itself into neat segments, that stories often have no simple resolution, and that nothing is lit like a Hollywood movie except a Hollywood movie. Fair enough, but not something anyone outside the art-house crowd is likely to want to shell out to see. In fact, it’s the perfect festival film; how well it will do outside that context is another question entirely.

Obviously, a lot of people liked Polisse better than I did (I’m sort of meh on the film—don’t love it, don’t hate it, but am glad I saw it), including the Cannes jury and most of the critics at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. For that reason, I’d say that if you have any interest in modern French film, and/or are up for something a little different from the usual summer fare, you should definitely go to see this one. Likewise, if you work in social services or are interested in seeing a bit of what life in Paris looks like outside the glamorous world usually portrayed in movies, or if you just have a higher tolerance than I do for slice-of-life narratives, this is a film to check out. | Sarah Boslaugh

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