The first thing that needs to be explained about this French import from writer/director/actress Maïwenn Le Besco is the title: no, “polisse” is not some obscure word too sophisticated to have come up in your high school French class. It is, rather, a child's misspelling of “police,” which — you may remember, if any of that class's faded vocabulary is still yours to dredge up — is French for “police.” How uncharacteristically straightforward!
Indeed, this film was going to be called “Police,” but was renamed to avoid confusion with Maurice Pialat's well-remembered (in France) 1985 film of that title. So, when asking for tickets, don't distort your lingual muscles trying to pronounce it the way it looks, the way I did. “Police” will do just fine.
The childish spelling is appropriate, since the film centers on the activities of the Paris Police's Child Protection Unit, which is charged with nabbing abusers, including (but not limited to) molesters and rapists. The members of this force are mocked by Homicide, Narcotics and other “serious” departments as the “Baby Unit.” The others see the CPU's concerns as “juvenile” — just child rape, incest, teen suicides. You know, kids' stuff. It's hard to imagine a more dispiriting, unsavory beat.
Le Besco plays Melissa, an outside photographer with permission to hang with the unit and document its activities. She quickly is absorbed into the cops' work family. Our focus jumps around: We spend the most time with Nadine (Karen Viard), who is in the middle of a divorce; her partner Iris (Marina Fois), whose husband has walked out on her; and Fred (rapper Joeystarr), whose marriage is also a shambles. Although there are other causes, it's clear that their particular line of work takes a personal toll.
Despite years on the force, Fred cannot distance himself emotionally from the unit’s cases. His compassion makes him easily the most engaging and sympathetic character on screen, but also the most dangerous. He has frequent, utterly righteous rages, like when a well-to-do child molester smugly brags that his political connections make him untouchable — and turns out to be right.
Fred's part of the story becomes more central when he falls for Melissa, not realizing that she already has a longtime sort-of mate. He sees the beautiful woman behind the prim manor and geeky glasses. This isn't such a great accomplishment, given how striking Le Besco is, meek librarian act or not.
Unlike most police films, the plot doesn't revolve around the crimes and perps, but rather the internal working of the unit and the psychological strains on its members. While much of the action takes place at the station house, Le Besco intercuts this with their individual home lives and with the principals in several of their investigations.
This jumping around does cause some confusion, which is amplified for non-French viewers. Unless you recognize most of the actors, it's easy to lose track of exactly who's who. For much of the film, I mistook Fois' character at home to be literally a different woman at work.
It all may sound grim, but there is some humor sprinkled throughout — much of it, admittedly, the gallows humor that provides a crucial outlet for the cops. In one of the best scenes in the movie, a female victim's answers to their questions are so incredibly naive and clueless that they all crack up, even the usually sensitive Fred.
“Polisse” nabbed one of the big prizes at Cannes and received 13 Cesar nominations, but it had the misfortune to be released in the same year as “The Artist,” so it won in only two categories. Despite the narrative confusions noted above, it is often brilliant in its complex psychological realism, thanks in no small part to the performances, Joeystarr's in particular.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).