By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 13, 2011 at 12:32PM
Based on real-life cases of the Child Protection Unit, the French procedural "Poliss" tells several stories at once. The third feature directed by French actress Maïwenn Le Besco (credit here simply as Maïwenn), it explores the personal lives and daily grind of the Parisian CPU with an incredible amount of detail -- sometimes too much detail, although that never detracts from its skillful execution.
Maïwenn uses a shaky-cam style to give the movie a quasi-documentary feel, while drawing the established ingredients of conventional police drama. However, with its densely episodic structure, it's almost too busy with good ideas. And while the casual naturalism bears some similarities to the British political satire "In the Loop," "Poliss" is ultimately too sincere to reach the same levels of caustic humor.
The central figure is Balloo (Frédéric Pierrot), the department's jaded chief, a man relentlessly frustrated by the lack of respect for his team's operations. Stuck in a cycle of random casework that finds them interrogating indifferent pedophiles and negligent parents, the CPU goes about its duties with no end in sight. The officers only find sympathy in each others' company, with even Balloo's wife growing tired of his devoted work ethic. Maïwenn relies on an endearing amount of off-the-cuff dialogue to drive the story along.
With its emphasis on peeling back the veil on a specific line of police work, and the colorful personalities behind it, "Poliss" bears a conceptual similarity to HBO's "The Wire." And "Poliss" could easily fill an entire season with the various incidents littered throughout the plot. The officers endlessly interrogate abused children and the people they accuse, then hit the bars at night. They drift through relationships, lose sleep over casework and hover wearily over their desks, engaged in incessant fraternal chatter.
As "Poliss" drags on, it begins to seem as though Maïwenn did her homework, fell in love with her characters and then just let them roam through a dozen different scenarios. As a result, her movie is comprised of numerous mini-arcs, but no major ones. It's hard to become swept up in the experience of any particular character in the overcrowded ensemble, and yet the dialogue always crackles with an equally amounts of sarcasm and endearing wit. "You want me to confess so you guys can go party?" asks an alleged pedophile, staring back at the dazed interrogators across the desk.
Maïwenn finds endlessly amusing bits in the apparent cluelessness of the accused. In one memorable bit, a nanny apathetically tells the cops that she gives handjobs to the young boy she cares for in order to put him to sleep. "Do you give your husband a pacifier?" comes the frustrated response.
If "Poliss"- - spelled that way to underscore the primal innocence that many of the criminals profess -- were extended in a TV show, the oscillations between comedy and drama would have more room to breathe. Instead, it's erratic and uneven in spite of its many virtues.
Rapper Joeystarr delivers a standout performance as French-Algerian cop Fred who manages to both seduce the shy photojournalist documenting the unit (Maiwenn) and later show his soft side, expressing legitimate sorrow when he fails to help a street child separated from his mother. Another touching incident finds anorexic officer Iris (Marina Fois) tasked with naming the dead newborn of a woman who was raped in order to sign the death certificate. Both subplots are extremely affecting, but they lack a cumulative takeaway.
Still, the progression of "Poliss" from energizing to exhausting reflects Maiwenn's ability to replicate her characters' slow routine onscreen. The movie succeeds as an ode to their under-appreciated efforts. When an officer must explain to a young child why a pedophile has to face justice, she responds that "it's a punishment that serves its purpose." "Poliss" works best when magnifying the effects that punishment has on the forces assigned to mete it out.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its overly busy story, "Poliss" may not get a huge U.S. release, but should play well in France and propel further awareness of Maiwenn's directorial skills. An English-language remake is also a possibility.
criticWIRE grade: B