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May 26, 2012

Police procedurals may not be as hot as they were over the last decade, but Law & Order: Special Victims Unit just wrapped up its 13th season and is going strong into its 14th; clearly there’s a voyeuristic draw in seeing some of the most inexplicable and perverse criminals out there. With Polisse, Maïwenn applies this formula to the Parisian Brigade de Protection des Mineurs, here translated as “Child Protective Unit”, or CPU. Written and shot in a more cinema vérité style reminiscent of The Wire, the film feels a little less polished than SVU, and a lot more disturbing at times.

People may not remember this, but SVU was always supposed to be heavier on the character arcs than the original Law & Order; it’s gotten stronger in this direction recently, but it’s never gotten close to David Simon’s characters from Homicide: Life on the Streets or The Wire. And it’s Simon’s characters that the officers of the CPU call to mind.

We may not dig too deeply into any one of them — even in two and a quarter hours — but they are clearly rich, full human characters with strengths and flaws all their own. One struggles with bulimia; one may be an alcoholic; more than one has a personal relationship on the rocks.

All of them are on edge, which is in the nature of the department. It may not always be rapists and pedophiles, but even when it’s not it’s shaken babies and kids forced into pickpocketing rings. And then there are the constant reminders that protecting the most defenseless members of society is explicitly among the lowest in priority of all the police departments. Dealing with these sort of things day in and day out would take an emotional toll on anyone.

We see some bonds of affection blossom and some fade. A budding romance between the hotheaded CPU officer Fred (Joeystarr) and the photographer, Mélissa campaign (Maïwenn herself), attached to the unit for a public relations plays out slowly and carefully; a friendship between two partners, Iris and Nadine (Marina Foïs and Karin Viard) rips apart violently.

And of course these characters’ arcs play out against the backdrop of the crimes they confront and the children they try to save. A raid on a trailer park rescues a couple dozen from exploitation; a mother stopped on the street turns out to have bigger problems than are initially apparent; another kidnaps her infant after getting out of jail, sparking a manhunt; a woman brings her son in, begging for CPU to find a place for him to stay since she can no longer care for him; a boy suspects something unseemly between his gymnastics coach and a teammate.

I don’t quite buy these as representative incidents any more than I do those concocted by Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters during their stint writing for SVU. But in a way the sensationalism makes up for in intensity what the movie lacks in duration; actual officers would likely deal with more routine cases, but over a span of years that can wear away on the mind like watching these stories does in a couple hours.

It’s an especially effective touch to swing wildly from one emotional extreme to another; one case wraps up in a celebration just as another one kicks off, driving spirits down again. Everything is going on all at once and there’s little enough time to get your head straight, as I imagine life must be like working in such an office.

For whatever luridity there is in the draw, Maïwenn delivers some compelling snapshots of human comedy and tragedy. Deep insights? no; well-crafted drama? absolutely.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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