The tribulations of cop psychology are familiar to audiences from decades of law-enforcement shows. Polisse’s band of simultaneously world-weary and gung-ho cops—members of the Parisian equivalent of the “Special Victims Unit” but focusing on crimes against children—pose the standard existential questions: how do you soldier on, day after day, when each child sheltered is merely a drop in the ocean, and you can’t take every homeless child home with you? What do you say when the answer to “How was your day, Honey?” is “I witnessed torment, misery, and ungodly abominations of human nature—and you?”? And how can aspiring parents justify bringing a child into this broken world?
Polisse infuses these perhaps tired themes with a playful juxtaposition of adult childishness and juvenile maturity. The third feature-length film directed by Maïwenn tackles actual cases from Paris’s Child Protection Unit (CPU in English; BPU, aka Brigade de Protection des Mineurs, en français). Portrayed as a makeshift family, these cops refer to their chief, Balloo, as “Papa”; interrogate pedophiles and victims of abuse by day; and play charades at night with unabashed enthusiasm.
Polisse explores the childish coping mechanisms and emotional roadblocks of adults continually faced with crimes against children. The CPU officers bicker like elementary-school children over bagged lunches in the precinct cafeteria. One cop provides the screeching sound effects for her own car chase from behind the wheel, and the team celebrates a minor victory over death by dancing nerdily, spastically, adolescently at a disco.
Because the film relies on independently intriguing vignettes rather than a strong central arc, Polisse feels more like an ensemble TV drama than cinema. There's even a theme song and delightful credit montage of juvenilia (a Playmobil police squad, a schoolyard, tweens skateboarding, cotton candy). A folksy soprano warbles the lyrics with sincerity: “If only your parents wanted to live on our island, everything would be so much happier.” But the fetishistic panorama of the colorful accoutrements of youth is somehow unsettling, daring us to imagine these seemingly innocent words in the mouth of a creepy uncle.
Polisse lives up to its eye-and-ear-catching opening. The stories repeatedly cut between the frivolous and the solemn, often discovering one where we expect to find the other. Though the conclusion is heavy-handed, Maïwenn has elicited some delicate performances from children and introduced characters who confront cases with a candid pragmatism that teledramas lack. Where we’re accustomed to detectives haggling with an uncooperative witness over time of death, Polisse gives us detectives haggling with an uncooperative old lech over whether or not he had an erection. It’s Law and Order: SVU with a sense of humor and a subtler brand of cynicism.