Controversial ‘Polisse’ provokes uneasy sympathy

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It is the mixed blessing of films premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that by the time they reach our shores they have already amassed a small corpus of criticism to shape our opinions of them. “Polisse,” from French director Maïwenn, which will begin its wide release in San Francisco nearly a year after it premièred at Cannes, is one such film. The battle lines have been drawn at the extremes. Respected film critics like Peter Bradshaw of “The Guardian” and Jordan Mintzer of  “The Hollywood Reporter” differed on whether it was one of the best or worst films of the competition. Now, as this years’ Cannes festival wraps up, Bay Area cinephiles get their chance to weigh in on what is probably the most controversial of last year’s offerings.

On first viewing, the somewhat polemical “Polisse” provides a strong counterpoint to its divided reviewers. It tells the story of Paris’ Child Protection Unit, a police department tasked with handling any investigation that involves children. The plot — which stays fixed on the police’s point of view — is told through many small vignettes of the varied crimes the unit investigates. We are never allowed to see these cases of abuse, molestation and exploitation — based on true cases that Maïwenn observed during an “internship” with the real CPU — carried through to trial. Like the police we remain on the front line, moving swiftly from case to case.

The horrific crimes against children in this film — recounted in gruesome detail when the accused gives testimony — induce the most visceral disgust for these criminals. The scenes in which parents and grandparents recount with blithe indifference the sex acts performed on children in their care are so effective they border on unwatchable.

Viewing “Polisse” amid the heat of a French election campaign — in which the social consequences of a shrinking state were hotly debated — the film’s harsh depiction of the consequences of European austerity seems to take a firm political stance. But when The Daily Californian spoke to Maïwenn at the San Francisco International Film Festival, she was decidedly critical of this interpretation. She said, “If I see a director and the director wants me to think the way he )thinks), it’s like I am in jail … it doesn’t give me the freedom to think.” With a Gallic, laissez-faire attitude, Maïwenn claims to see herself as simply the teller of a story and the architect of emotions. Whatever political interpretation one brings to the story is one’s own.

Given the way certain directors use cinema to beat and cajole the viewer into their political camp, Maïwenn’s straightjacket metaphor is hardly an exaggeration. Her objectivity, by forcing us to actively engage with the film and form our own opinion, is far more satisfying for the viewer. How ambitious this claim to objectivity is, however, depends on how many different viewpoints you think exist for a subject like child abuse.

Maïwenn’s filmmaking is very performance focused. Before shooting, she held a workshop for her actors to introduce them to their characters. Unlike her previous, more improvisational efforts, “Pardonnez-moi” and “The Ball of the Actresses,” “Polisse” had a locked script with little real improvisation. In spite of this, it retains the fluid spontaneity of these efforts. We feel like anything can happen. The direction of the film turns on a dime, depending on which case walks through the door.

The clashing characters are unified by their difficulty to reconcile their personal and professional lives. The woeful picture of humanity that emerges from the CPU’s work insidiously bleeds into the personal lives of its members. Over the course of the film, we see Iris’, one of the unit’s leaders, waning trust in other people induce paroxysmal fits of rage. Fred, the most virtuous male character in the film even loses faith in himself and, in a moving scene he finds himself unable to give his own young daughter a bath.

If its view of humanity is somewhat bleak, “Polisse” presents a rather refreshing attitude to class for the polarised post-Occupy world. Through the lens of Maïwenn’s character, Melissa — a photographer from an affluent area in central Paris — we see members of the CPU confronting issues in their own neighbourhoods on the city’s outskirts. She sees cops and criminals, both working class and both victims of the same oppressive system. But while one partakes in humanity’s most horrid crimes, the other must deal with the emotional consequences of their daily exposure to them.

In taking this stance, “Polisse” recalls Italian communist poet Pier Paolo Pasolini’s startling rebuke to the 1968 protestors in Paris and Rome. Instead of siding with the rioting students he said, “I sympathised with the policemen!/ Because the policemen are the sons of the poor./ They come from the outskirts, urban and rural.” The film does not, of course, exonerate the police of all wrongdoing, but in taking a sympathetic attitude to their own class, financial and relationship hardships, Maïwenn belies a humanitarian attitude to her subjects that is perhaps hidden from themselves.

Like the film’s politics, Maïwenn is evasive on the way “Polisse” deals with its characters’ humanity.  She confessed to wanting to present and understand the view of the pedophile and the police equally, to force the nonplussed viewer to actively engage with the subject matter. “In your mind you will be lost,” she said, “but we have to be lost before thinking.” The film may be an effective attempt at objectivity. If this is true, so strong are the emotions it stirs within us, we will know for sure.