'Polisse' Review: Harrowing Look at French's Front Line Against Child Predators

'Polisse' Review: Harrowing Look at French's Front Line Against Child Predators

Few crimes appall the general populace like those committed against children, the subject of a haunting new French film called “Polisse.”

The cops who make up the child protection unit in Paris wade through these most reprehensible cases daily. And the shambles of their personal lives – alcoholism, eating disorders, affairs – are almost justified as coping mechanisms for the child abuse and neglect they witness.

After a few hours I was horrified. I can’t imagine a 40-hour week of it.

French director Maïwenn (who also co-wrote the film) loosely structured “Polisse” around a string of real-life cases woven together with behind-the-scenes stories of the officers’ private lives. Maïwenn also stars in the ensemble cast as Melissa, a photographer assigned to cover the unit.

Her compelling directorial style combines the realism of documentary camera-work without breaking the fourth wall with interviews.

Joining Maïwenn on screen, a stellar ensemble team fights to protect the children of Parisian elites, immigrants and everyone in between. Fred (Joey Starr) stands out as probably the most emotional character. He’s the best example of an average officer. He’s angry when we are, he breaks at the heartbreaking situations. He’s a parent – like many of the unit’s members – who can’t bear to see children hurt.

On the other end of the spectrum, Iris (Marina Foïs) is an exercise addict who generally hates men. She shows little emotion, instead bottling up her anger and releasing it through self-destructive outlets.

Matching the style and characters, the film is set in a very real, believable France. Maïwenn’s Paris is hardly a city of love. In “Polisse” it is gray, dismal, full of disturbing criminals. Additionally, the team works in a bureaucratic nightmare, at the bottom of the law enforcement hierarchy and under a police chief who generally despises them. The chief ignores the team’s pleas for help when a mother and child need a home only to protect a well-connected abusive father soon after.

Maïwenn’s bleak exposé provides no real answer to the problems of child abuse and neglect. She largely divorces her crime drama from religion, and thus from hope. Of course, that’s France – a country where only 34 percent of the population even believes in God. (In the U.S., that figure is 80 percent, with an additional 12 percent saying they believe in a “universal spirit.”)

Occasionally a case is just odd enough that the team can laugh at it, and when they save a child there’s cause for celebration. In the end, that’s what Maïwenn clings to. She tries to reconcile the hopelessness of day-in, day-out, endless cases by juxtaposing a tragedy in the unit with a triumph in the life of one of the kids they helped. It’s her way of showing that the sacrifices the officers make, in their personal lives and at the expense of relationships, are not in vain.

For those who can’t cling to such small rewards, “Polisse” offers only darkness.