Cops and robbers may be an onscreen staple, but few police dramas are as affecting as the new film, Polisse, out this Friday. Telling the story of a Child Protection Unit in Paris, the film swings between ordinary office politics and heart-wrenching cases so seamlessly it feels more like a documentary than a narrative. The film is the work of Maïwenn, the actress-turned-writer and director best known to American audiences for playing an operatic blue alien in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element.
Maïwenn first got the idea for the film after running across a documentary about the work of a Child Protection Unit or CPU on television. As opposed to undercover work or beat patrols, Maïwenn said she had never seen that kind of police work represented onscreen before. “I felt that everything had already been done in terms of police dealing with criminal issues,” she explained through a translator.
Rather than just hiring a few consultants for the film, Maïwenn shadowed an actual Child Protection Unit, mining their cases for storylines. While there, she found herself unexpectedly feeling sympathy for the perpetrators in addition to the victims. “I felt like the pedophiles, they were in effect [victims],” she said. “They are [the] ones that are never going to be able to get over it or get through it at the end.”
Part of what makes the film so affecting is how real and natural everything feels. The actors, aside from Maïwenn herself, don’t look out of place as cops patrolling gritty neighborhoods away from the glamorous center of Paris. When people argue, they cut one another off rather than waiting for a perfectly-timed comeback. To achieve this style, Maïwenn shot 150 hours of film that she then whittled down to a taut 127 minutes. “I asked them not to stay stuck to the script because it gets to be static and artificial,” she said of her actors. “In real life it doesn’t work like that. People skip over each other constantly.” By allowing her actors to work cohesively, the unit comes across a slightly dysfunctional family able to scream at each other one moment and then reconcile the next.
In addition to co-writing and directing the film, Maïwenn plays a photographer who is assigned to document the unit’s cases and ends up falling for a passionate cop played by French rapper and actor, Joeystarr. The pair are able to show another side of class issues in France not often shown in many glorified films about Paris. “I wanted to create a contrast between this policeman, who is basically damaged, with this bougie photography woman,” said Maïwenn. “I wanted to show a cultural shock between the two.”
While the film is just being released stateside this year, it has already won over critics in France. Last year the film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for 13 César awards in France. In spite of the praise, Maïwenn is baffled by most of the reactions to her film. “All reactions surprise me, starting from when I was a Cannes,” she said. “I like the film, but I don’t think I would have gotten so carried away. I see everything that was missing in it.”
While audiences and the press have been fawning over the film, Maïwenn says she is mainly happy that she was able to call attention to the often overlooked CPU, sometimes mocked as the “baby unit.” When she screened the film for members of the Child Protection Unit she had shadowed, Maïwenn said they told her simply, “It’s us. It’s a movie about us.”