"Americans want the French with baguettes and berets," the actress-writer-director Julie Delpy ("Before Sunrise") told me last month, "The way French people handle sexuality is too controversial for American audiences." That remark resonated when I watched actress-writer-director Maiwenn submerge herself in the sordid world of the Paris Child Protection Unit. Maiwenn's ripped-from-the-headlines drama, "Polisse" — a movie that won last year's jury prize at Cannes — should appeal to anyone needing a "Law & Order" fix. Call it "Paris: SVU."
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Maiwenn plays a supporting role in the ensemble as Melissa, a disaffected upper-class photographer ("I only eat organic") and mother who becomes intoxicated by the police unit's urgency. As the officers under her lens confront pedophilia, rape, and child abuse in ethnically diverse Belleville, Melissa loses her objective distance, drawn to an angry but righteous cop named Fred (Joey Starr), who has a wife and kid at home.
Like "Law & Order: SVU," the movie shifts between the domestic disturbances in the officers' private lives and the domestic abuse the police confront on a daily basis — and how this screws with their heads. The cases overlap as if they were a season of the TV series compressed into one night: A junkie mother steals back her own baby, another uses sexual methods to put her infant boy to sleep, a grandfather pets his granddaughter's "kitty cat," and a male gym teacher instructs a young pupil in a different form of calisthenics in the dubious privacy of a bathroom stall.
One featured subplot follows the fractured work "marriage" of two partners, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois). Nadine deals with her divorce at home; Iris tries to get pregnant while hiding bulimia. Meanwhile, on the job, their daily intimacy coping with unspeakable cases like that of a rape victim's partial birth abortion of an unwanted fetus shows signs of strain. When their relationship finally implodes, the women sling intimate secrets along with work grievances as their colleagues try to separate them. The confrontation scene is unsparing: Women have their own ways to be crueler than a simple punch in the nose.
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While Maiwenn pays significant attention to the inner lives of the policewomen, they exist within an ensemble where the bosses are male and equally oppressed by the human condition. This is no chick flick. The focus rests on women and men, some flawed, some sick, some smugly evil. And, perhaps, it's that unspoken parity that makes "Polisse" more radical as a whole than, say, in an overt, telegraphing scene when an irate female police officer has a screaming fight with her male colleagues and yells, "A woman speaks out, and she's a radical. F**k you!"
Using an existing form historically dominated by male storytellers, Maiwenn achieves a rich, challenging crime drama by dramatizing the storylines of men and women with equal urgency. By its very nature, the Paris CPU combines nurturing and policing — it has cops with a maternal side, treating the abused women and children of Belleville. And, having seen the absolute worst in people among Parisians, these officers look to each other to find the best. Sometimes, they even succeed.
See the trailer for 'Polisse':