Cannes Movie Review: Polisse (2012)

Karin Viard, Joey Starr and Marina Foïs in Polisse

Polisse is a fast-paced, tragic, touching, emotional and occasionally hilarious look at the French police’s Child Protective Unit (CPU). It plays like a documentary, or a hard-hitting two hour premiere to a new cable police procedural, which we all now know is in no way an insult.

Co-writer and director Maïwenn Le Besco has crafted a story focused on the CPU with a dedication to realism as it places the daily life of ten CPU agents under the microscope. Trouble at home, trouble with co-workers and all their joys, disappointments and successes are on display. With each new scene comes a new emotion. Polisse is so tightly edited you’re barely given a moment to breathe as it moves from one story to the next and by the time it’s over you’ll be surprised two hours has already gone by.

The politics of the story are enough for several more hours of content including the working relationship between the CPU unit and other departments within the French police. Alternatively, a lunchtime conversation turns to politics and talk of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s involvement, or an argued lack thereof, in the police department and the public perception as a result.

Of course, at the center of it all are the children and the tireless work put in by the CPU to keep them safe. The documentary style with which the film is shot adds to the realism, but the stories told are more than enough to wrench at your heart. Uncles and fathers molesting their children. Mothers carelessly dropping their six-month-old child to the pavement or having to hand their ten-year-old over to the police just so they will have a roof over their head. This is tragic, real world stuff we’re talking about.

The joy, pain and heartbreak of the job is felt by the audience as a result of the crimes depicted on the screen, all of which were taken from actual cases. However, none of this would work had it not been for the performances of an incredible cast. Made up of a group of actors I was entirely unfamiliar with, Polisse runs the gamut of emotions, and never lets up as the final frame is one that will stick with you long after you’ve left the theater no matter how dramatized you may believe it to be.

To introduce you to everyone making up the CPU team would be exhaustive. I don’t want to get into specific characters, but to not mention the actors would be a shame. Joey Star as Fred delivers the bulk of the passion when it comes to the work side of things. A back-and-forth exchange between Naidra Ayadi and a suspect late in the film is absolutely electric. Marina Foïs and Karin Viard share a combustible partnership as Iris and Nadine and Frédéric Pierrot as chief of the unit must walk the fine line between his passionate team and the higher ups.

Additionally, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Karole Rocher, Emmanuelle Bercot, Arnaud Henriet and Jeremie Elkaim are not to be forgotten as all contribute to the feature and stand out in their own way.

Lastly, there’s Maïwenn Le Besco, directing under just her first name and sharing screenplay credit with Bercot, Maïwenn also stars as Melissa, a photojournalist assigned to capture the day-to-day life of the CPU. And while she captures their story in images she too finds her personal life becoming part of the story.

Polisse is worth at least three viewings just to get familiar with each member of the unit, which isn’t a knock against it, but rather an endorsement. You’ll want to see it again and if you don’t, it will be because you want to see more. You’ll wish a sequel was already in development or that the story would next move to the small screen for a regular series on HBO or Showtime. Polisse is an “in the trenches” success that is occasionally tough to watch as much as it is enriching, fascinating and entertaining.