This originally appeared on Capital New York.
“You try to handle it on a case by case basis,” one member of Paris’ Child Protection Unit says when asked about the emotional implications of his job. He deals with victims of incest, pedophilia, drug addicted parents, abductions. The toll such work takes is extreme.
Despite his comment, Polisse, a film directed by Maïwenn, is not so much about how the unit deals with things “case by case” (there are too many cases to be mentioned here), but the interior dynamic of a tight group of people whose job it is to find and catch the most despicable members of any society, those who prey on or abuse children. Most of us spend the majority of our time “at work”. Every office has its own rules, its own atmosphere. The people you see every day in the office, whether the office be a financial institution, a factory line, or a restaurant, become a second family, with the same dysfunctions, resentments, and sudden intimacy that a real family has. Television often deals better with “work” than film does, because our relationship to work is so all-consuming that it would take more than a two-hour film to explore it. When Polisse sticks to the work, it is a highly effective film, and rare in its single-minded focus.
Director Maïwenn, in this, her third feature, takes an interesting approach which is evident in the first 10 minutes of the film. We are thrust into the world of the Child Protection Unit, their interrogations, their gentle questioning of abused kids, their rough and explicit banter over the lunch table. There are many characters, about ten people in the unit, and we get to know them in fragments. There is no lead. Because there are so many cases that erupt and disappear over the course of the film, the feeling of the actual job of the CPU starts to emerge. Cops bring in perpetrators and kids, question them, and then move on. Perhaps they will be called to testify at a trial, if there is one, but Polisse doesn’t concern itself with that, because for the most part, cops won’t know what happened after the case leaves their office. “Closure” is something none of them can depend upon, expect, or even desire.
Because of the lack of closure, and because of the sheer volume of cases we see, the film, while energetic, gritty, and sometimes very funny, is a dispiriting experience. Child abuse can never be stopped entirely, not as long as human beings are what they are. Catching one predator can seem meaningless when you know that another one is right behind him. So why do it? How do you maintain the hope that what you are doing is making a difference? Polisse doesn’t take on the big question so much as it presents the world of people who choose to do such work, and shows us what they do every day, and shows how they let off steam at night, whooping it up in a nightclub, still a unit even after-hours.
Polisse observes the rhythms of a police department, the bureaucratic bullshit, the rivalry between different units, the bad food eaten while standing up on a street corner, the hanging around with nothing to do suddenly interrupted by a crisis when everyone comes together, the bickering amongst the unit, but then, conversely, their shared sense of purpose. It’s a great cop flick.
The focus on work is so strong that when Polisse deviates, briefly, into an inter-office romance, it loses its drive. Thankfully, Maïwenn’s style is not linear, so the romance doesn’t take up a vast majority of screen time, but it still represents a slackening in the structure and a loss of focus. The loneliness of people who do such work is apparent, and so the romance is unnecessary. How do you shake off the horrifying things you’ve seen and then go home and have a nice dinner with your family? Compartmentalization is a big problem for these people. The job bleeds into every area of life.
The actors are fantastic, and Maïwenn’s script (which she co-wrote with Emmanuelle Bercot) is based on some time she spent hanging out with Paris’ Child Protection Unit, after seeing a documentary on the work that they did. She was fascinated by how the team operated, how they coalesced into almost one being, and how they dealt with the ins and outs of the mountain of cases they had to investigate. The script manages to suggest that the people in the CPU are all damaged, somehow, by the work that they do, but because they are cops that damage is not handled or acknowledged. They can’t afford it. These are the kinds of people whose eyes are always roaming, even when they are off-duty, for signs of things “wrong” in the landscape. Some throw themselves into work to escape their problems at home. One can’t get pregnant and her husband is sick of “having sex when the schedule on the fridge says so”. A couple of them are in the process of getting divorced. Everyone in the unit knows everything about everyone else. The job is a second family. Polisse really gets that.
Occasionally, one of them gets too emotionally involved in a case. This is obviously a common part of such a job. Maïwenn doesn’t dwell on it, she just takes note of it and moves on. Much of the film is about taking note, and then moving on. The cops do not sentimentalize what they do. There is one scene where three cops question a teenage girl who gave a gang of boys blow jobs to get back the phone that they stole from her. The cops are trying to understand why she did what she did. The flat-faced teenage girl says simply, “It was a Smartphone.” There is a pause, and all of the cops spontaneously burst into laughter. The scene goes on a bit too long, and the joke wears thin, but that first outburst of laughter in the face of a horrifying scenario is eloquent.
When we meet someone new, often the first question we ask is, “What do you do?”
For the people on the CPU, that would be a very difficult question to answer.