Rating: ★★★☆☆

Polisse is a film easier to admire for what it aims to do rather than what it actually pulls off. The Cannes Jury Prize-winner is an extremely uncomfortable experience from first minute to last, and one that, despite tending to go a little overboard, feels for the most part authentic and well-researched.

Writer, director and co-star Maïwen has concocted a concertina of unpleasantly riveting accounts of abuse, as we follow officers from the Child Protection Unit on their daily beat, arresting and questioning perps. We feel the pressures acting on them personally and professionally, amid a murky political climate, where police respect is at an all-time low, and the bureaucracy dictates a counter-productive method of case management and crime-solving.

At home, we observe the draining effect of their difficult work, whether it’s a strained marriage, intimacy issues or alcoholism. Some of it is admittedly garden variety soap opera fodder, such as one officer’s child custody battle, which feels largely tangential and not at all suggestive of the officers’ dysfunctional work-life balance. The better moments come as we realise the dichotomy of tension and relief that characterises many of their lives; one officer, Fred (Joey Starr), cannot rest until a case is solved, but as soon as it is, he heads straight out to party. Personal investment becomes a common infraction of the officers, and in their shared pain, they often find comfort in each other, usually inappropriately.

Polisse is a film that does not want for intensity; it boasts plenty of superbly acted verbal sparring between the officers and suspects. Some perps appear more obviously guilty than others, pitting stereotype against the element of surprise, as some frightening confessionals – which Maïwen claims were based on actual cases – very nearly seem too-barmy-to-be-true. Truly chilling is the brazen confession of one well-connected, sociopathic pedophile who brags about being able to squirm his way out of the situation.

While most of the acting is startlingly good, it is the child performances that unquestionably linger in the mind. A young boy being forcibly separated from his mother who can no longer look after him is devastating and distressing to watch, while a teenage girl having a blasé chat about her own society-imposed sexualisation effectively concedes a pressing social issue.

Attempts are made to offset the unpleasantness slightly with some brave if occasionally misjudged gallows humour, notably as one bored officer hopes that her next case will be something juicy like “a rape, or a gang rape”. More disconcerting and ill-timed is a scene in which the officers laugh uproariously at a young girl who has had to perform a sex act in order to retrieve her stolen mobile phone. While one might recognise the enormous cathartic release required to temper an emotionally challenging profession like this, the scene plays as awkward and embarrassing rather than tragically funny.

Still, an unhinged sense of humour is at least expected given their grim business. Even when a save is made, there is no rewarding way to end the day, and this is sort of where the film comes unstuck. Some apparent solutions and moments of respite feel rather simplistic when juxtaposed with the scenes of complete despair. This reaches an apex when the CPU officers pack a group of “seized” children onto a bus, and within minutes, they are dancing and having fun. While some might interpret it as a comment on incredible childhood resilience, it feels tacky and contrived.

Conversely, the authenticity of the film’s numerous scenes of an extremely upsetting nature ensure they will burn long into the minds of just about any viewer. One instance, displaying the remains of a late-term abortion as a result of rape, heavily details the process with which the foetus is disposed of. This will be simply too much for some viewers – understandably so – but it powerfully explains the problematic lives the officers lead as soon as they clock out.

This strong, punchy work is often undone by some of the film’s aching exterior issues, namely a preference towards overacting during the most intense exchanges. One scene in which a Muslim officer screams at a suspect using the Quran as a defense for his misogyny, and another involving a spat between two female cops, simply goes beyond emotional intensity into bleating histrionics. Also, the further the plot trundles on, branching off in more directions than it is capable of handling, the more overstuffed it feels.

Accepting its hard-hitting nature, the most praise-worthy aspect of Polisse is probably its pragmatic depiction of pedophilia as a disease; a heinous and unthinkably vile one, but a disease nonetheless. It asks the very same unsettling and thought-provoking questions about society that the fantastic Kevin Bacon-starring The Huntsman did, no doubt a pungent, if uneasy, point on which to close. Regrettably, Maïwen can’t seem to resist going the full measure of madness in taking things one fatal step too far in the final scene. Still, she directs traffic confidently, and handles the emotionally shattering material  with an uncompromising hand.

It’s melodramatic to the point of lunacy, but an intense ride you won’t soon forget.

Polisse is on limited release from Friday.

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This article was first posted on June 13, 2012