French drama ‘Polisse’ delivers raw story, rich performances

Polisse/2011/127 min.

Karin Viard

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Lately, I’ve been admiring the work of acclaimed actress Karin Viard, a sort of French Everywoman and the star of “Polisse,” a gripping cop drama.

Viard, 46, brings to her parts a blend of jolting spontaneity and what-you-see-is-what-you-get earthiness grounded by a subtle, thoughtful core. She reminds me of Laura Dern, both in her looks and her impressive versatility as an actress.

In “Polisse,” directed by Maïwenn, Viard plays Nadine, a cop with the Parisian police department’s child protection unit. Of course, it’s a grim day-to-day routine – confronting criminals, often abusive parents, and tending to damaged children – and the members of this tightly knit crew rely on each other to deal with their anguish and stress.
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They frequently let off steam over meals or after-work drinks; they know the details of each other’s personal lives. Nadine, for example, is going through a painful divorce, and confides in the tightly wound Iris (Marina Foïs), who is struggling with infertility.
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Through swift, sometimes dizzying, editing, the kaleidoscopic narrative weaves together chapters of the cops’ own domestic dramas and vignettes of cases the unit tackles. Raw, often repellent, and unvarnished, the crimes that unfold can be hard to watch. But, overall, the story is fiercely compelling.
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Director/writer/actress (“The Fifth Element,” “High Tension”) Maïwenn co-wrote “Polisse,” a child’s spelling of the word police, with Emmanuelle Bercot after researching and spending time with an actual police unit. They both act in the film; Bercot is Sue Ellen and Maïwenn plays Melissa, a photographer on assignment to document the team. This strand, inserting the photographer as an outside observer, strikes me as a misstep. It feels clunky and tacked on at first, then weirdly out of control once Melissa becomes romantically involved with Fred (French rapper Joey Starr).
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That said, Maïwenn elicits unforgettable performances from the cast, with Viard leading the pack. (“Polisse,” which played in Los Angeles at the COL•COA film festival in April, won the jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival as well as two César awards, Yann Dedet and Laure Gardette for best editing and Naidra Ayadi for most promising actress.) As the film spins to a devastating end, it makes a deep emotional mark. You have walked in these cops’ shoes and lived briefly in their world – dire, chaotic and sadly mundane.
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“Polisse” opens today in New York and LA.
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