On paper, actress and director Maïwenn’s CPU (Child Protection Unit) orientated procedural drama Polisse (2011), with its blend of both the humorous and the harrowing, sounds an ambitious approach to tackling the issue of child abuse in her native France. Yet despite deputising in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film is fatally flawed by a complete lack of structural coherency and a number of horribly jarring ‘comic’ interjections.
Maïwenn herself features centrally as Melissa, a rookie photographer brought in to document the work of a tightly-nit Parisian CPU unit. She initially comes into conflict with self-styled leader Fred (one of the film’s better performances, courtesy of French rapper Joeystar), who appears enraged at her unwillingness to ‘clack’ her camera at anything other than abused children. This tension soon transforms into lust, and the two begin an extra-marital relationship, whilst other members of the CPU team struggle to balance their respective domestic lives with the stresses and strains of their often-traumatic career choice.
Even this grossly simplified synopsis feels misleading given the sheer number of clashing plots and subplots Maïwenn seems intent on throwing up on-screen. Numerous cases are opened, only (one suspects deliberately) to be disregarded at the drop of the hat – perhaps as a tenuous nod to the unending tide of abuse cases real-life CPU teams are faced with each and every day. However, the real victim throughout Polisse is its seemingly structureless narrative, which ultimately frustrates more than it enlightens.
Polisse’s most problematic obstruction is its erratic, constantly conflicting tonal shifts between light comedy and dark subject matter. All too often, a clumsy moment of humour is flagrantly inserted in and around the discussion of sexual abuse, which may well put off many. The motivation behind the film’s numerous comic interludes is certainly comprehensible – much like those that work in health care, the members of the CPU unit depend upon jokes and joviality to undertake such emotionally-draining work. However, these asides are inserted far too regularly and randomly, providing little impact above a semi-embarrassed smirk.
Despite all the best intentions, Maïwenn’s CPU melodrama feels like a TV mini-series hastily re-edited for the big screen, with little or no cinematic consideration. Audiences are far more likely to come away frustrated by Polisse’s lack of narrative and tonal cohesion than by the stultifying bureaucracy inherent in the French child protection system.