Film review – Polisse (2011)

Polisse: Nadine (Karin Viard), Fred (Joeystarr) and Iris (Marina Foïs)
Nadine (Karin Viard), Fred (Joeystarr) and Iris (Marina Foïs)

Polisse follows the day-to-day work of a Child Protection Unit (CPU) in Paris, inspired by real cases and the lives of actual CPU officers. Juxtaposition plays an important part throughout the film where scenes depicting child abuse or neglect are frequently followed by scenes depicting family life where adults interact with children appropriately. This technique is sometimes used to reveal the great harm that adults can do to children and it is also used strategically to remind the audience there are plenty of adults who genuinely love their children and have no trouble at all distinguishing between right and wrong. The technique is also used to reinforce the almost schizophrenic nature of being a CPU officer where the days are spent coldly discussing and investigating horrific crimes against children before going home to spend time with their own families.

Polisse has frequently been compared to the US television series The Wire (created by David Simon, 2002-2008) due to its focus on police work, multi-narrative structure and sense of realism. However, the complex narrative structure of The Wire is used to convey all the different facets of the drug trade in Baltimore. The Wire contains a grand narrative of interlinking storylines; Polisse is a snapshot of the daily grind where storylines filter in and out of the narrative often without resolution. Cases pass by the desks of the CPU, are briefly worked on and then go elsewhere. The members of the unit go to work on the next case and more often than not don’t know the outcomes of the cases they began. Sometimes the officers have cause to celebrate, other times they are devastated by what has happened that day. Mostly they maintain an odd detachment that sometimes results in melancholy and sometimes in ultra black humour.

This approach allows the audience to get an insight into the reality of police work in a highly sensitive department. Early in the film it is established that the officers come from a variety of ethnic, religious and political backgrounds with different levels of education. Some remain cool and detached throughout while others are prone to emotional investment. Polisse shows the danger of being too detached from the work, resulting in a lack of sensitivity while interrogating a victim or the parent of a victim, and also the danger of becoming too attached, resulting in emotional meltdown.

Some of the most interesting characters that emerge are the ones on various ends of the emotional attachment spectrum. There is Baloo (Frédéric Pierrot), the head of the unit, who is passionate about the work, but remains a calming presence at crucial moments, even though at times the other officers perceive him as weak for not challenging the bureau chief. On the other hand, there is Fred (Joeystarr) a far more volatile presence who is fed up with situations where a lack of resources is all that’s preventing the unit from helping somebody. The most engaging dynamic throughout the film is the friendship between Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Foïs), who are partners in the unit. Both are having marital troubles, which they discuss in between arrests and while on stakeouts, and during the film both develop in very different ways. The resolution for one of the characters may initially seem surprising, but throughout the film there are clues and suggestions about what is to come.

Director and co-writer Maïwenn casts herself in the film as Mélissa, a photojournalist who is assigned to the unit. It’s a clever self aware piece of casting where her character mimics her actual time spent with real CPU police officers. It positions her as the outsider looking inwards at this tightly knit team and like the audience tries to make sense of how the officers function. Conversations her character has mimic questions the audience might have about how to represent the CPU. What is the value of showing a crying child? Is there a point to showing members of the unit chatting over lunch rather than out solving crimes? Unfortunately, when the film delves into Mélissa’s backstory and then develops a romance story involving her and one of the CPU officers, it’s neither necessary nor insightful. Nevertheless, the benefit of a film that follows so many characters is that scenes containing less interesting characters and storylines don’t linger on the screen for long.

Not only is Polisse an excellent film for how it pieces together fragments to convey the CPU as a whole, but it also offers a sobering insight into the range and causes of child abuse. Some of the perpetrators are simply clueless while others are disturbingly calculated. A scene when an Islamic officer rips shreds off a fundamentalist man for betraying the true values of Islam by forcing his daughter into an arranged marriage is the only scene that edges into didactic territory. Polisse also depicts how not all cases are clear cut especially ones involving young teenagers who are openly and assertively sexually active. A scene depicting a teenage girl having a stillbirth as a result of rape is one of the most upsetting cinematic depictions of the incredible harm a rapist can do.

The fragmented narrative and use of juxtaposition that Maïwenn adopts for Polisse results in an engaging portrait of an ensemble of people and cases, which for the subject matter works far better than a conventional narrative. The CPU unit feels like a character with many different and often contradictory elements that make up the whole. The different cases become a single ongoing mission to best manage the continual abuse and neglect that children suffer. Appropriately the film ends with a final juxtaposition where two storylines are resolved through crosscutting. One story offers a sense of hope and healing while the other is tragic. As the rest of the film has shown us, this is the reality of working in the CPU.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012


  1. I often find French films intense, ‘too realistic’ probably. And besides that, the painful subject of the film I’d rather not contemplate – not dissimilar to problems facing the care community in Australia, the UK and I imagine the rest of the world. which you summed up nicely with your sentence: “some of the perpetrators are simply clueless while others are disturbingly calculated.”

    I won’t be seeing the film, your review was plenty enough. In my life those situations exist, but thankfully only vaguely at the edge of my peripheral vision. The crux of my avoidance is that nothing can be done. Take one child from its clueless or calculating parents, maybe two or the more probably, thousands, then what? They become adopted or institutionalised. Education? Well theoretically it’s a fine thing.

    “The reality of working in the CPU” as you say – the system of the ‘modern’ era into which our clueless and calculating ancestors have thrown us.

    Thank heavens for Hollywood.

  2. Allan – are you serious? Are you actually saying there is no point saving some children from abusive situations because you can’t save them all? I can’t even begin to get my head around how you can make such a rationalisation.

  3. Not too sure where you’re going with the whole ‘nothing can be done’ statement Allan…and though I understand you wanting to avoid a film with such heavy content, film can be a social tool, a cultural tool, as much as simply a conduit for pure entertainment. Keeping the horrible issue of child abuse in public forums, cinema being one way to do that, is a wonderful thing and can mean one step forward in enacting positive change re these issues.

    EDIT: Sorry Grady, this comment got caught in my spam filter so only got approved after the follow-up comments by Allan and myself. I completely agree with what you are saying – TC

  4. Not what I’m saying. Sure on an individual basis, I’d do the decent thing as would most people, which is rather b/w Hollywood because abuse has myriad subtle gradients and that returns us to your review and the diverse problems dealing with those gradients.

    I meant, ultimately what can be done. If the world of suffering children were laid bare before us I doubt we’d have tears for them all. How long can a man cry? From that throng of suffering where to start? Join the CPU or equivalent maybe, whilst neglecting the other worthy causes in the world, which again ‘ultimately’ are only part of a system. And I’m not ‘down’ on any system – most of it is trying it’s best just like the Parisian CPU.

    I cannot fix the world, never mind help children. It’s been tried many times by better people than me so I keep it at the edge of my vision where it troubles me least.

  5. Sorry Allan, but all I am getting from your comments are a string of defeatist self-justifications for nobody doing anything based on your belief that it all belongs in the too-hard basket.

    If you’d prefer to keep your blinkers on then fine, but maybe see the film before commenting further and you’ll get a better sense of what the CPU are all about and why they do what they do despite the frustrations, set backs and enormity of the problem.

    In the meantime, I’m only going to engage in further discussion (or approve further comments) about the actual film as this is getting off topic.

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