Article/ Polisse: To Serve and Protect

Maïwenn’s compelling third feature looks at the work of Paris’ Child Protection Agency

By Ian Haydn Smith

Crime pays in cinema. Handsomely. Film is as perfect a platform as the novel for detailing the nefarious activities of the underworld. It also excels at profiling the work of the law enforcement officers intent on catching criminals. And for every great crime film, there is an equally impressive police procedural.

Maïwenn’s Polisse depicts the activities of the Child Protection Unit in Paris. The writer-director herself plays Melissa, a photojournalist commissioned to document the work of the day shift. She witnesses a group of individuals coping with some of the worst crimes against society’s most innocent victims. The officers are pushed to the limit, often taking their angst out on each other. But the cases they deal with also draw them together into a closely-knit group, to which Melissa becomes inextricably linked.

Polisse (a child’s misspelling of the word ‘police’) continues the long lineage of criminal investigation dramas in cinema. A cursory glance may lead one to believe that they have been dominated by America. Landmark films include The Naked City (1948), Jules Dassin’s account of criminal life on the streets of New York. There is also In the Heat of the Night (1967), The French Connection (1971), Across 110th Street (1972), The Onion Field (1979), The First Deadly Sin (1980) and, most recently, Zodiac (2007). The American director best associated with the sub-genre is Sidney Lumet, who elevated it to an art form with The Offence (1972), Serpico (1973), Q&A (1990) and his masterpiece, Prince of the City (1981).

However, the police procedural has not solely been the remit of American cinema. In the same year that Dassin – who would produce one of France’s finest crime capers with Rififi (1955) – made The Naked City, Georges Clouzot directed Quai des Orfèrvres, a riveting account of a murder investigation, which takes its title from the address of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris. That same address was employed by Olivier Marchal, an ex-officer and one of the sub-genres most ardent practitioners, in 36 (2004), which saw two cops, played Daniel Auteil and Gerard Depardieu, pitted against each other. French cinema’s crime specialist Jean-Pierre Melville even entered the fray with his final film, Un Flic (1972), featuring Alain Delon as an obsessive cop chasing down a gang of ruthless bank robbers.

The sub-genre has long been the staple of mainstream television. And in recent years, American shows such as The Wire, and the CSI, NCIS and Law and Order franchises have met their match in successful French (Spiral, Flics, Braquo), Swedish (Wallander), Italian (Inspector Montalbano) and Danish (The Killing) exports. In response, cinema has experimented with the format, resulting in such original works as Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009), Baran bo Odar’s The Silence (2010) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s visually striking and narratively daring Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner from last year, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Maïwenn’s film, which was also awarded at Cannes (Jury Prize), continues the tradition of roughly hewn policers such as Bob Swaim’s La Balance (1982) and Bertrand Tavernier’s gritty L.627 (1992). But in looking at the plight of children on the streets of the French capital, rather than vice or drugs, it forges its own unique vision of a tough and often disturbing world.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Polisse screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 15 June. Book your tickets here