Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The French SVU: Polisse

The officers of the French Child Protection Unit (CPU) take a lot of heat for investigating low income immigrant families, but they have to go where the crimes are.  However, they understandably chafe when top brass runs interference for a well-heeled suspect.  It will be one of many challenges facing a reasonably diverse CPU squad in Maïwenn’s Polisse (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

The CPU cops are like a family.  They work hard and play hard together as a unit.  They truly get on quite well, except when they don’t.  Typically, the tensions that arise are between partners.  Familiarity does that.  Recently, they have welcomed an outsider into their midst: Melissa, a photographer documenting their work as part of an Interior Ministry PR offensive.  They get along with her too, especially the mostly separated Fred, the department’s bleeding heart hothead.

Based on real Parisian cases, Polisse (a deliberately childlike misspelling) is largely episodic, introducing many of investigations, but never following any all the way through, Law & Order style.  Some are decidedly politically incorrect, such as the case of the Muslim father who believes his religion supersedes any secular laws regarding child welfare or the wholesale removal of Romany children from their caravan.  In contrast, the pursuit of the powerfully connected de la Faublaise and Fred’s desperate attempt to find shelter for an immigrant mother and her child are far safer cinematic terrain.

Polisse boasts several powerful scenes, as when a Muslim officer loses her cool with said co-religionist father.  Yet, it is just as often wildly off-pitch, most glaringly so when several of the CPU officers find themselves snickering at an uneducated minor, who essentially submitted for the sake of a smart phone.  The scenes of Fred and Melissa’s warm and fuzzy cross-cultural romance are also total energy drains.  However, it ends with a bracing but not inappropriate conclusion, giving the audience a nice kick on the way out.

When on job, Joeystarr (a.k.a. Joey Starr, the French rapper and the director’s significant other) is ferociously intense as Fred.  Oddly though, his on-screen chemistry with Maïwenn’s Melissa is decidedly flat.  There are several very distinctive supporting turns, particularly from Karin Viard, Marina Foïs, and Naidra Ayadi.  Still, the large cast is arguably too large, with several coppers making little impression beyond being the pregnant one or such like.

Without question, Polisse has more to offer than scores of films.  Nonetheless, it is not infrequently messy and under-developed.  At least it is bold and ambitious, which counts for a lot.  Recommended for Francophiles who will recognize the ensemble deep with top name French talent, Polisse opens this Friday (5/18) in New York at the IFC Center.