The first few minutes of Polisse whiz by in a strange blur, flinging the viewer into the middle of one conversation after another, abrupt scenes demarcated by jarring cuts. It’s an approach that seems to be conceived as a primer for the rest of the film, which favors piecemeal anecdotal capsules over a direct narrative, telling the hodgepodge story of a patchwork group of people.
Attention has clearly been paid to subverting the standard expectations of the police story, and director Maïwenn’s third feature is successful in pushing an unusual conceptual angle. It’s immediately clear that, despite being a story about police officers, Polisse is less concerned with the job they share than the qualities that impel them toward it. But beyond the core concept, difficulties emerge. As the film staggers forward, there’s a haphazard feel to the way its scenes are arrayed, like we’re seeing a random smattering of episodes rather than a carefully culled selection. There’s also the fact that many of these dramatic arcs are familiar, even in their abortive state, which gives the sense of a standard workplace drama broken down into pieces.
Polisse does clear its biggest hurdle: the tales of pedophiles and abusers that get alternated with the personal stories of Paris’s Child Protection Unit. The film uses the crimes the group investigates to provide emotional shading rather than dramatic fodder; the brief story of a domineering Muslim father has no weight on its own because it mostly exists to illuminate the psychology of the group’s lone Islamic female. Such a move could have come off as lurid, unbalancing the rest of the story in the service of cheap glimpses at perversion. Instead the endless parade of perpetrators, whose crimes are presented and prosecuted but never resolved, serves as the grist for ongoing dramatic conflicts, explaining and underscoring why these people are so embittered, exhausted, and angry.
There are a lot of faces and personalities to juggle amid this sprawling ensemble of disaffected cops, and it’s a testament to writers Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot that they manage to clearly define so many of these characters. A few get pushed into positions of primacy, and a mostly unnecessary love story is stirred up, but Polisse remains admirably even-handed in spreading around screen time. However, in another example of a soaring conceptual victory marred by an uneven landing, this approach still makes for a lot of half-formed characters. That might still work, but the film hedges its bets by hustling many of the players into familiar arcs (paired off, urged into climactic arguments, or killed off), resulting in a third-act reshuffling that feels like a frantic attempt to snip dangling threads.
The film counteracts its clichés by leaning hard on another one, the old maxim of “If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.” This works well enough in some instances, like the rough banter that enforces the realistic group dynamic, but in other places it gets pushed too far. One scene in particular, where three officers end up laughing in the face of an adolescent rape victim, is destructive, not illuminating enough to excuse these characters’ cruelty. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that it’s more effective when it removes direct encounters between officers and criminals. Because the difficulty of the work is established clearly enough early on, if the repeated scenes stressing this point had been removed, there might have been much-needed space to further develop these characters.
The large, mostly skilled cast remains the film’s greatest untapped asset, because what’s most interesting here is the mental states of these people, and the way that these states relate to their job, which functions as an extension of their tangled lives. On the surface, stopping child abuse seems like the most clear-cut mission imaginable, but like most work it proves astoundingly complicated at a deeper level. These characters hold out the hope that they can be heroes, or even just make some kind of a difference, even though it’s clear that the best they can do is maintain the status quo. Tangled amid lives defined by endless bureaucracy and broken relationships, the hope for better things is both a motivator and a constant source of pain, a scab that none of them can stop picking.
Polisse has been compared to The Wire, but beyond a shared interest in the Sisyphean nature of police work, the two are mostly comparable as inverses of each other. The Wire was about institutional collapse, how broken systems trap individuals within tidal cycles of decay. Polisse is about broken people, using their interactions with damaged institutions as fuel for their own cyclical struggles. In keeping with its focus on form, this is also broken movie, a promising experiment that gets mired in conventional storylines and outcomes.