Friday, 13 July 2012

Maiwenn's Polisse

I finally caught up with this film at the Renoir one Sunday morning. That evening I read the reviews and wondered if I had seen the same film as the reviewers - even as Roger Ebert. Man did the reviewers not like it, and the more American they were, the less they liked it. At first I though that this was due to reasons like: 1) Maiwenn uses one name, 2) she's very, very attractive, 3) she's married to Luc Besson, 4) she's French and 1-4 taken together mean she's just so much cooler than the reviewers they don't like it. 

After a while I decided it was something else. Polisse is about the work of a Child Protection Unit in Belleville, a working-class but not unduly rough area of Paris. So you know what that means, right? Creepy fathers doing things with five year-olds, live-in boyfriends abusing the ten-year-old daughter, under-age teenagers being exploited by "boyfriends" and creepy drug dealers, and of course, and endless stream of female victims. Men Bad, Women Victims, Cops Restrained but Caring and Tearful just once. Nothing else is allowed.

Certainly not a bunch of cops bursting into laughter when a teenage girl explains how she was prepared to give out blow-jobs to get her smartphone back. The critics didn't like that one, and you could feel Ebert squirming. Call me crass, but I got why the cops were laughing, though you would need to see the staggering performance of the actress playing a teenage girl who had no idea at all that it was wrong to give blow jobs because she had been conned out of her phone and was looking at you with a "what's the issue" face. Faced with that you could only cry, tear your hair out or laugh. The cops, sensibly, choose to laugh. The actress was portraying a girl who simply did not understand that she was supposed to attack the person who stole her phone, scratch her eyes out and kick her teeth in. She didn't even see herself as a victim. I know, you're having a hard time getting your head round this one.

Maiwenn broke just about every PC rule in the book on this one. Girls as perpetrators of abuse on each other? Check. Disrespecting traditional Islamic values? Check. Mothers giving their very young boy-children hand-jobs to get them to sleep? Check. Mothers kidnapping their children? Check. Male perpetrators not coming across as violent creeps? Check. Portraying Romanies as anything other than victims of prejudice, let alone as actual gangsters? Check. Suggesting that street beggars are a part of gangs and not the victims of an uncaring social system? Check. No absent fathers not paying child support? Check. Policemen and women being abrupt with the victims as much as the perpetrators? Check. The Police believing a father's denial of abuse against the allegations of the mother when they're in a custody fight? Check. 

Maiwenn, Maiwenn, don't you know you can't mess with the conventions like this? This movie is seriously French: no PC evasion, no fake tolerance and no denial. No wonder the Anglos got all fidgety about it.

I'm going to assume that, given how much profile this film had in France, the Child Protection Unit Maiwenn spent a year with was prepared to accept her portrayal of them. There's no publicity about the Parisian police saying that the film did not represent the work or attitude of the Unit. Perhaps they liked it because she had them saying what they wished they could say, perhaps they thought it made them look better. If there had been an official distancing, the nay-sayers would have been all over it. (In some cases, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.)  

The scene where the African mother hands her son over because she's sleeping on the street and can't get both of them into a hostel, which the Unit can't either when they try, was heartbreaking, and the little boy's shouts and screams absolutely wrenching. The scene where the rape victim giving birth to a dead baby was a mixture of bureaucratic pathos and real emotion. The actress' performance was so good it felt like a documentary - all the bit-part players gave performances that good.

And that's what I was thinking as I left the cinema. How the hell did that little slip of a girl get all those performances out of everyone? The main cast was a big-time crew and were clearly improvising brilliantly at times, but those bit-players! Wow. After years of watching this stuff, I've come to the conclusion that it's the bit-parts that make or break a drama.

As for the ending. The All-Men-Are-Bastards Iris throws herself out of a window. A lot of people thought this was silly, presumably because they didn't understand why. I was surprised, but frankly, the actress sells it. Iris is bulemic, sour, has a lousy marriage, has alienated her police partner to the point where they are going to be split up. She works a gym-teacher-and-young-boy case where the boy and teacher actually clearly care about each other, even though they know the relationship is wrong. This shakes her faith in what she's doing. In the closing scene she gets a promotion to another unit and everyone applauds politely, but as if she's not there - which she isn't since she's left - and at that point her world empties out completely. But her jump isn't about her, it's about the people who have just abandoned her, to get back at them.

Polisse is right up there with Goodbye First Love as one of the best films of 2012 as far as I'm concerned. Sure the latter is an elegant homage to all things Rohmer, and the former is a slightly out of control helter-skleter ride, but then the best moments in life often are. 


  1. Good analysis

  2. The credits are quite literally rolling as I searched for a rationale of why Iris jumped, to make sense of what was otherwise an excellent movie. So thank you for providing that rationale, and for providing the completing excellence I now realise it deserves. Extremely perceptive review of a great movie.

  3. To add my view to the analysis... Iris has been abused by a pedophile. That is why she is so angry to the world. That is where her bulimia comes from. At the end, the child that talked about his abuse got a medal, the woman that held it in commits suicide.
    Great review, it's interesting to see the view of an English man on a Politically Incorrect movie.

  4. Just watched the movie and was trying to understand the rationale behind that. Thank you for your thorough analysis!