“Policier?” Maïwenn asks her interpreter, wanting to make sure of the proper term before confirming or not whether she’s made one. Of course, it’s a genre that originated in the actress-turned-director’s native France, often with Alain Delon donning a fedora. But it’s likely a blessing she’s not entirely sure of its definition as her third feature “Polisse” subscribes to no other reality than the one she experienced first-hand accompanying one of her country’s child protective units as they conducted investigations into crimes against the innocent by day and trying to leave it behind them when they go home at night.
As grim as that may sound, however, it strangely isn’t in last year’s winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, a film which announces itself with a brief interrogation of a young girl being asked rather indelicately about whether her father molested her before a sugary children’s song begins to play over an opening titles sequence filled with kids enjoying cotton candy at a fair and shots of Barbie heads. It’s jarring considering the context, but necessary in setting up the film’s unusually realistic tone – not exactly gritty in the style of traditional cop dramas that make a point of it, but rough and uncompromising, both in its depiction of the subtle predators among us and in its blistering sense of humor, which seems to have emerged as a necessity for officers who no longer are shocked by anything. While the film has often been compared with American TV series such as “The Wire” and “Law and Order,” it is perhaps most realistic in the sense that some cases go unsolved and no easy conclusions are drawn.
“I wanted to do this movie as they’re working, so the structure is respectful for this reason,” Maïwenn said, during a recent stop in Los Angeles. “There is a difference a police drama or a film about the police.”
To that end, the film follows an eclectic cast of cops, including famed French rapper Joeystarr, Karin Viard, and Emmanuelle Bercot (a co-writer on the film), joined by an observer, photographer Melissa (Maïwenn), working on cases ranging from a mother who shakes her baby in the street to a potential kidnapping case to adults who take advantage of children because they can or because they simply don’t know better.
“I didn’t want to put the cops like heroes, put the victims like eternal victims and put the pedophile as [central characters]. That’s too easy,” said the director, who shot over 150 hours of footage to get the film she wanted. Yet she was able to narrow her focus to a number of themes, including one close to her heart – the exploitation of children and the oversexualization of young women, in particular, which she was particularly sensitive to as someone who began acting when she was just five years old in the 1981 comedy “Next Year If All Goes Well.”
“I really didn’t want to cast any kids that I felt were being pushed by their parents,” she said, adding that many of the kids who participated in the film in difficult scenes did so knowing that the scenes were based in truth and were important and worked hard to win the confidence of both the child actors and their parents.
Incidentally, it was around the birth of her second child in 2004 that Maïwenn made the transition from acting to directing in, of all things, an adaptation of a stage play “I’m an Actress” based on her relationship with her mother, the actress and filmmaker Catherine Belkhodja. Approached by a producer after one of the shows to make the short, it wasn’t long before Claude Lelouch, who directed her in the 2005 film “The Courage to Love,” showed her “a different way to direct,” which led to her 2006 feature “Pardonnez-Moi,” which flirted with autobiography as it was shot in the style of a video diary made for her daughter’s later benefit in revealing her own painful upbringing. Still, for the director, it was a revelation.
“When I did my first movie, that’s the moment I said to myself oh my God, I love so much this job,” said Maïwenn. “Since that day, I’m so fulfilled.”
She insists it’s mainly coincidence that she’s appeared an observer behind a camera in each of her three films thus far — her second film “All About Actresses” was presented as a mockumentary about identity with the French female A-list. But it’s clear she has created an identity onscreen that transcends acting as a truthseeker. So with reality such a priority as a filmmaker, was she ever tempted to use real footage in “Polisse” as the documentaries that inspired her film did?
“I like directing too much,” she said. “I don’t want to use somebody else’s images.”
“Polisse” is now open in New York at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Los Angeles at the Landmark as well as the Seattle Film Festival at the Harvard Exit on May 20th. It will expand and be available on demand nationwide on May 25th.