When The Battle Of Algiers was released in 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic war film about the Algerian struggle against the French occupation was so convincing in its newsreel authenticity that it needed a disclaimer to remind viewers that they watching a fiction. The best moments of Maïwenn’s Polisse, about the dedicated members of a Child Protection Unit in northern Paris, have the same quality, a fly-on-the-wall docu-realism that feels eerily like the real thing. In other instances, the opposite is true, to the point where the camera technique lays bare the cop-on-the-edge clichés and contrivances of Maïwenn’s script, which is loosely sketched to an occasional fault. On balance, the merits of her approach far outweigh its flaws, giving the unit a collective vitality that’s than charged from dysfunctional parts—the job attracts (and creates) the stressballs and headcases who have the nerve to do it.
Applying little in the way of structure—at least not a structure that’s immediately visible—Maïwenn follows the CPU as it investigates hair-raising cases of child neglect and sexual abuse. With an intensity that often creeps into withering indignation, they pry information from the alleged abusers sitting on the other side of their desk, seizing on every evasion or outright denial of responsibility. They also take part in large-scale sting operations and do the excruciating work of placing children in foster care, like an immigrant boy whose mother can no longer take of him. The close-knit group also carouses together at bars and dinner parties, and inevitably pair off in friendships and romances that can turn toxic in that environment.
Maïwenn casts herself in the least compelling role, as a photographer who’s assigned by the Interior Ministry to document the group, but gets involved with a member. These domestic entanglements tend to be the worst part of cop shows and movies—no one rewatches Heat to see Al Pacino’s home life fall apart—and they distract from the core of Polisse, which is about the work. Granted, the stresses of home surface on the job and vice versa, so Maïwenn’s rationale for lumping them together is clear, but the casework, based on real incidents, has a verisimilitude that naturally outstrips any conflicts invented from whole cloth. Polisse has trouble sometimes hiding the seams between the two, but when it works, it doesn’t look like it’s being staged at all.