Director/co-writer Maïwenn doesn't flinch from scenes in which detectives question children about whether or not they were molested, which makes for grim viewing. Instead of focusing in on a few cases,Polisse zooms out to convey the scope of the full department, from the tensions between partners to interdepartmental rivalries, from encounters with the worst of humanity to after-hours nightclub crawls to blow off steam. Polisse achieves an impressively realistic level of texture amid constant activity, but at the expense of thematic depth.
Reminiscent of director Robert Altman, Maïwenn cross-cuts between the actors of a large cast, with some officers drifting in and out of the narrative while others command more attention. Hip-hop musician Joeystarr plays Fred, a cop with an explosive temper and a habit of infidelity. On the clock, partners Iris and Nadine (Karin Viard and Marina Foïs) stand toe-to-toe with the most hostile suspects, while supporting each other through their respective marital problems.
On a scene-by-scene level, Polisse proves powerful and effective, particularly when the officers comb the city to find an unstable drug addict who kidnapped her infant daughter. At one point a homeless immigrant woman surrenders her son to the authorities so he won't have to live on the streets, and the boy's cries are heart-wrenching. Yet the film features light-hearted moments as well, such as the officer's inability to keep from laughing at a young woman who gave oral sex to get her cell phone back.
Maïwenn portrays Melissa, a photographer assigned to document the work of the unit. As an outsider, the character serves partly as an audience surrogate, but even more as a stand-in for the filmmakers, who no doubt spent time observing real CTU officers. At one point Fred accuses Melissa of focusing on "miserablist" details of their work, like the crying children, and Maïwenn seems to signal her attentions to explore more than just the emotional devastation that accompanies crimes against children.
Unfortunately Maïwenn underplays Melissa to the point of invisibility, yet devotes an undue amount of attention to the character. At one point, Fred urges Melissa to remove her glasses and let her hair down to reveal how sexy she is, a cliché that seems like vanity given that the director's playing the role. If Maïwenn didn't give such an inert performance, the Melissa scenes would provide a welcome change of pace.
While Polisse maintains its coherence while parading countless characters and subplots before the audience, the film's impact begins to dissipate after the first hour. Most cases only take place over a few scenes, if even that many. The film carefully builds up a particularly disgusting, infuriating molestation plot, then drops it completely and moves on. When the officers' tempers flare, either at home or on the job, the ensuing confrontations take place at the same level, with raised voices and gesticulating hands, until they seem like a parody of European argument. One set of partners, who seem to get along fine, blow up at each other with a raging, eye-popping meltdown that the previous onscreen action doesn't really justify.
As a realistic, sprawling depiction of a unit within a big city police department, Polisse invites comparisons to HBO's "The Wire." But it more greatly resembles a two-hour pilot to a wannabe Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley series, by putting too much emphasis on lurid crimes and self-righteous speeches. Maïwenn successfully guides her audience through some highly unpleasant material, but her ambitions prove the film's undoing. The filmmaker's reach ultimately exceeds the grasp of Polisse.
Polisse. 3 stars. Directed by Maïwenn. Stars Karin Viard, Joeystarr. Not rated. Opens Fri., June 15. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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