FilmJuice have my review of Maiwenn’s award-winning police drama Polisse.
The critical success of The Wire and The Sopranos has created something of a market for intelligent police procedural dramas. Incapable of keeping up with demand, British TV has begun casting its net further afield than the anglophonic sphere resulting in the explosive popularity of French series like Spiral and Braquo and Scandinavian series such as The Killing and The Bridge. Clearly designed to tap into a similar zeitgeist, Maiwenn’s Polisse is an intelligent and bleak police drama set around a Parisian child protection unit.
Maiwenn decided to make the film after seeing a documentary about child protection units. Drawing on her showbiz contacts, the director embedded herself in a working police unit and recreated everything she saw on set with actors. In other words, when a stressed single mother explains that one of her sons is better behaved than the other because she jerks him off every night, chances are that someone actually said that to a police officer in front of this film’s director. Even more astonishing is the fact that the woman’s naïve belief that this type of behaviour is a normal part of parenting is utterly convincing and disarmingly human. Shot in a documentary style and performed by an absolutely fearless cast of adult and child actors, these little vignettes crackle with the kind of uncomfortable energy that you only get when an unpleasant truth is well and truly pinned down.
As brilliant as these interview section may be, the rest of the film suffers for Maiwenn’s misguided attempt to crowbar an entire TV series’ worth of narrative and character development into a mere two hours. What this means is that while each of the ensemble cast receives a big emotional moment, none of these moments feel in any way connected to the film’s limited space for character building and drama. The result is a film that lurches from one hysterical outburst to the next and by the time you’ve seen your third copper break down in tears and punch a wall the film’s hysteria begins to seem comical, which is really quite unfortunate for a film about child abuse.
In his excellent extended essay What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Gabriel Josipovici provides a spirited reading of Cevantes’ Don Quixote. Quixote, argues Josipovici, is not merely the first modern novel, it is also the first post-modern novel as within the novel’s various framing devices lies the recognition that there is something profoundly false about the form of the novel. A falseness that can never quite be expunged, regardless of how full-throated an author’s commitment to realism might be :
“Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatises the way we are readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world” [p. 34]
No genre has so proudly worn its commitment to realism as the police procedural. From TV series such as The Wire through to books such as Izzo’s Total Kheops (1995), McBain’s 87th Precinct series and Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The police procedural does not merely seek to entertain by providing us with a mystery that the protagonists can gamely unravel, it also seeks to reflect the reality not only of the books’ settings but also of the job of solving crimes and being a policeman. However, as Josipovici wisely points out, there is a tension here. David Simon’s The Wire beautifully captured the political realities of contemporary America, but is it not just a little bit handy that one of the police officers should have chosen to go and get a job teaching thereby allowing the series to devote an entire series to the problems of America’s schooling? Similarly, Izzo’s Total Kheops does a wonderful job of communicating the texture and character of the town of Marseilles, but is it not convenient that the book’s protagonist listens to cutting-edge hip hop while drinking local wines and eating immaculately cooked locally-sourced produce rather than humming along to Johnny Halliday whilst enjoying a burger and a coke?
Clearly, the police procedural’s commitment to realism is in desperate need of being challenged and deconstructed. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Poliţist, Adjectiv scratches that itch. With long and delicately manicured finger nails.
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