Jérémie Elkaïm, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Arnaud Henriet and Joey Starr, among others, in "Polisse"

The stories depicted in the French drama Polisse are, the film’s prologue assures us, based on real-life cases handled by the Paris Sûreté’s Child Protection Unit. I’ve no reason to doubt that claim, but, despite its factual provenance and shelf load of awards (including the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), Polisse (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 25) is more grindhouse exploitation flick than hard-hitting arthouse exposé.

Written and directed by Maïwenn (born Maïwenn Le Besco) , the film is an episodic ensemble piece in which a group of morally compromised, manipulative, and incredibly grumpy police officers humiliate people, abuse suspects, and generally get on each other’s nerves. This is probably not surprising, as their job basically consists of separating parents from their children.

Among the officers working the child protection beat are Fred (Joeystarr), whose marriage is on the rocks; Nadine (Karin Viard), whose marriage is on the rocks; and Iris (Marina Fois), who wisely is not in a relationship due to her profound disdain for the male sex. The film’s characters are, however, incidental to the proceedings. You won’t care about their petty problems, and you won’t like them because of their complete disregard for everyone around them. They don’t even seem to like kids that much.

Enter Melissa (none other than Maïwenn), a photographer assigned to the unit to take some up close and personal snapshots for a police publication. Melissa is the stereotypical ugly duckling working woman who only needs one of the male characters to remove her glasses and undo her bun to liberate the hot chick within — which, of course, happens midway through the film.

Polisse meanders its way through two hours of child abuse investigations and shouting matches, adding for good measure a dash of Islamophobia and some anti-Gypsy racism. Despite an early (and rather gentle) poke at former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the film’s screenplay repeatedly echoes some of Sarko’s nastier nationalist arguments.

None of us like to contemplate the abuse (sexual or otherwise) of children, but Polisse seems to revel in it. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable viewing experience in which we see youngsters describe the nature of their abuse and adults defend themselves against those accusations. Thankfully, the film never actually shows us this abuse, but it’s clear that Maiwenn doesn’t feel to need to prove anything. If someone is accused of such a heinous crime, they’re guilty in the eyes of her film.

Polisse’s screenplay, co-written by Bercot and Maïwenn, half-heartedly acknowledges the profound cruelty of its characters but steadfastly refuses to condemn them. Perhaps this is a bold attempt to underscore the desensitizing effect their work has had on them, but when one character announces “can’t we do a rape or a gang rape? It’d be cooler for me” and another orders “if you see any weird mothers, bring them in”, the pudding has definitely been over-egged.

No doubt informed by the director’s relationship with Gallic schlockmeister Luc Besson — with whom she bore a child at the tender age of 16 — Polisse also features an incredibly distasteful (and completely unnecessary) abortion sequence. By the time this scene rolls around, however, most viewers will no longer care about the director’s intentions. They’ll just want the film to end.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...