The police in the powerful, uneven new French film "Polisse" work for the Child Protection Unit in northern Paris. Their lives are taken up with investigating crimes against minors, including pedophilia, child prostitution, and all other manner of vice.
Over the film's more-than-two-hour running time we are immersed in the lives of these cops as they attempt both to see justice done and to preserve their sanity. In the rare moments when they hang out together and party hearty, their energy is almost frantic. They know they have to seize these oases before the next storm hits.
The squad includes the unit's leader, Balloo (Frédéric Pierrot); Fred (French rap artist Joeystarr), who is estranged from his daughter; Nadine (Karin Viard), who is going through a divorce, and her troubled partner Iris (Marina Foïs); and Mathieu (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who hankers for his married partner, Chrys (Karole Rocher).
Joining them on assignment from the Interior Ministry to document their activities is Melissa (Maïwenn), who shows up wearing thick glasses and her rich mane of hair tucked in. This is a dead giveaway that, as she opens up to the cops' lives and Fred's affections, she will eventually eliminate the glasses and loosen her hair.
Maïwenn also directed and, with Emmanuelle Bercot, co-wrote the screenplay. (The film won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2011.) She has a good feeling for how to give highly charged dramatic action a documentarylike effect. Many of the film's most effective set pieces are its simplest – the one-on-one police station interrogations with victims and perpetrators that also function as discrete minidramas.
One sequence in particular is shattering. An African immigrant woman comes to the station because she is homeless and can't care for her young son. She wants the police to find them a shelter. Fred, to his sorrow, can't find a refuge for them both, and the boy, who is almost silent throughout this ordeal, breaks into great gasping sobs when he is wrenched from his mother.
"Polisse" would have been better if it had not tried to pack quite so much into its overlong running time. At times I felt as if I were watching a mashup of "The Wire" in French, with dozens of crisscrossing episodes and competing subplots. Every sequence is keyed for maximum intensity, which has the paradoxical effect of lessening the overall oomph.
I wish the entirety of "Polisse" were as good as its parts, but perhaps its free-form, mood-swing approach was unavoidable, given the subject. The audience is put through the same wringer as the cops. Grade: B+ (Not rated. In French, with subtitles.)