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By Philip Martin

This article was published July 20, 2012 at 2:07 a.m.


The officers of the Parisian Child Protection Unit are portrayed by a fine ensemble cast in Maiwenn’s powerful if uneven drama Polisse.

— Maiwenn is a strikingly statuesque French actress/fashion model turned filmmaker who may look vaguely familiar to American moviegoers: She played a blue-skinned alien opera singer in her then-husband Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in 1997, and now she’s the face of Chanel’s eyeware collection.

It is tempting to conflate the director with the character she plays in her current film, the gritty, verite-style cop drama Polisse, which won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. As Melissa, a photojournalist embedded with the Paris police’s Child Protection Unit, she affects thick glasses, wears her hair up and dresses in a kind of haute geeky style that audiences are supposed to read as signifying inhibition.

She’s withdrawn and mousy, and she goes nearly catatonic when the hotheaded alpha male detective Freddie (the French rapper Joeystarr) turns on her after a long and unfruitful search for a disturbed woman who has absconded from a hospital with a newborn.

This all, of course, sets up the inevitable moment when the same detective, seeking to atone, asks her to dance, and then, upon getting her out on the dance floor, demands she take off those specs and loose that wild mane in the inevitable “Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!” moment.

It says something that that moment of vanity does not spoil this remarkably powerful movie, that otherwise has about it the authority of a documentary (and some of the messy ambiguity that attaches to nonfiction). While Maiwenn’s act fools no one in the audience - the moment she appears onscreen we understand that she is the great beauty pretending to be plain - but we soon learn to ignore her anyway, because the faces of the cops around her are so deeply interesting and plaintive.

And credit for that goes to the director, for she has cast this movie perfectly, with a large ensemble of capable actors who look familiar only because they look like ordinary people. In the beginning, this might seem a little confusing, as we are dropped into the lives of the police- at home and on the job - and left to untangle the various skeins of professional association and private allegiance for ourselves. Most of the members of the Child Protection Unit have sketchy domestic situations - it’s an occupational hazard when your day-to-day life involves the rescue and detention of troubled and misused children. It is a grinding beat.

Yet the officers show up each day, to be patronized by the “real” police (who chase robbers and drug dealers - the “real” bad guys), thwarted by superiors with political motives and unnerved by the sometimes uncomprehending victims and perpetrators they engage on a daily basis. These interviews - with befuddled grandfathers and mothers who seem not to understand exactly what constitutes abuse, as well as defiant fathers who insist on their right to use their children, as they will - make up the bitter heart of the film.

Like her fictional counterpart, Maiwenn embedded herself with the real Child Protection Unit, and all of the incidents in the film are said to depict cases she actually witnessed or was told about by the police. We never see how the cases are resolved, in part because the cops themselves usually never learn the final deposition. They just move on, from one case of banal (or not so banal) evil to the next.

Occasionally, the film is unconscionably funny, as when the unit - seemingly as a group - interviews a girl who has been brought in for providing sexual favors in exchange for a cell phone. “It was a smart phone,” she deadpans, as the officers try not to crack up.

Insensitive, sure - but true to the reality of detective bullpens, where gallows humor is sometimes the only thing that can cut through the depressive aura that settles on the unit.

It’s a tough and mostly rewarding ride, sort of like a full season of a novelistic cable drama like The Wire compressed into a two-hour serving, but it’s probably impossible for anyone who doesn’t have a fluent command of French to come away from Polisse confident they understood everything. (I confess that I don’t understand the title; it is a French word that means “polishes,” and a homonym for “police,” which means the same in French and English, but if there’s a pun in there, I simply don’t get it.)

That’s all right. You’ll get enough. Though it’s a little uneven and occasionally over-the-top, Polisse is real cinema.

Polisse 89 Cast: Karin Viard, Joeystarr, Marina Fois, Maiwenn, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Emmanuelle Bercot, Frederic Pierrot Director: Maiwenn Rating: Not rated Running time: 127 minutes In French, with English subtitles

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 07/20/2012

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