A cop in her early forties is sitting in a judge's chambers, awaiting the outcome of divorce proceedings; after the judge has ruled, the cop gets up, walks over to where her now ex-husband has been sitting, and throws herself around him, breathing in his scent one last time. A short while after this, she will rejoin her best friend and partner in an adjacent coffee shop, where - even as she smiles - she bursts into tears. As the slightly cutesy - if phonetically accurate - misspelling of its title would suggest, Polisse is an unusually feminine take on the police-procedural drama, that most masculine of contemporary genres, written as it is by the actresses Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot, and directed by Maïwenn herself.
We're following the day shift of the BPM (Brigade de protection des mineurs), sometimes derogatively referred to as "the Baby Unit", whose work requires this utmost of sensitivity to events. These cops are charged with the hugely delicate business of handling those children and teenagers who've found themselves caught up in criminal activity, whether as perpetrator or victim; the unit's remit includes collecting testimony and evidence from minors who've been raped and abused. Though the detectives are occasionally allowed out to make up the numbers on raids organised by other divisions, mostly they're limited to sitting in a squadroom where a four-year-old is telling them how daddy touched her when she was in the bath, or a wife is being encouraged to reveal her husband's deviant sexual peccadillos. This is no place for the hotheads or mavericks who usually tear through these dramas; instead, the BPM work as a team - a family, even - questioning their charges collaboratively, often over their colleagues' shoulders, and at all times on camera, attempting to get some new angle or read on their interviewees. If, for example, a married man willingly confesses that what really turns him on when in bed with his wife is to imagine that he's fucking his pre-pubescent daughter, is that just the average Parisian's leftfield sexual fantasy, or evidence of something more disturbing - and illegal - yet?
The film forms part of an ongoing French project to examine major institutions on film, and show both how they do and don't function in a modern, multicultural, aggressively sexualised world: Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or-winning The Class is the obvious precedent. To most viewers, however, I suspect Polisse will be most reminiscent of TV drama like NYPD Blue, with which it shares a certain saltiness, if not in those tears, than in its dialogue: in their downtime, these cops obsessively talk about sex, perhaps as a way of reclaiming the words and gestures degraded in the course of rape and abuse cases. Yet Maïwenn and Bercot have in some way inverted the NYPD Blue model, by centralising those domestic scenes the TV show (and its largely male writing staff) traditionally relegated to codas or footnotes. In Polisse, the home environment comes first, and the work follows on from it: the detectives appear to do what they do out of a desire to foster healthy relationships wherever they are, an assignment shown as far less easily fulfilled than it typically is on screen. All that copulation talk is here grounded, given moral purpose: for these individuals, making babies - and raising them right - is as important as saving the babies of others.
Perhaps only screenwriters with ovaries could have spotted this, but Polisse even finds a way of subverting the male gaze to which the procedural has conventionally reverted on stakeouts and surveillance missions. Our entry point into this world is a female photographer, Melissa (played by the director herself), whose status as an observer presumably corresponds to Maïwenn's own position while researching the BPM. During a late-night hunt for a junkie mother who's kidnapped her child from a home, one of the cops accuses the photographer of "miserablism", and of taking snaps that will only paint the unit in a negative light - a common accusation of directors who come to dabble in social realism. In fact, the film - edited down from a reported 150 hours of footage - is kept appreciably loose, swearing off the timeworn linearity of the procedural (crime-investigation-wrap up) in favour of something fresher, more experiential.
Miserablist is precisely the last thing Polisse is; its moods are too fluid for that. If nothing else, these two hours point up, once again, just how permeable the boundary between comedy and drama has become: scenes adopt the now-familiar Curb/Office template of allowing the performers to improvise within scripted parameters. Certain strands are identified, and elevated by their casting - like the case of a super-smooth father (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) suspected by his wife (Sandrine Kiberlain) of harming their daughter - but they're allowed to come and go, as and when the director needs them to make a broader point about the unit; instead of exposition and wrap-ups, we get a choice selection of moments, such as the screech of delight given out by journeywoman detective Sue Ellen (Bercot; even the characters have TV names) after her radio calls her into the thrill of a car chase, or the after-work dance scenes and unit outings that illustrate how the cops take the edge off hard days.
The benefit of the approach is a set of startlingly naturalistic performances. The actresses are as fierce as any we'll see in 2012, but it's a particular pleasure to inhabit any squadroom where Karin Viard and Marina Fois - performers who can do comic and cop-tough - sit at adjacent desks; Frédéric Pierrot's captain, affectionately known as "Pops", is a skilful, economically drawn portrait of a man trying desperately to hold onto his humanity in the face of rising stress levels; and - at the other end of the spectrum - there's a wailing tour de force from young Gaye Sarambounou in an expressly moving sequence as a boy given up by a migrant mother who has no place left to go but the streets.
Maïwenn makes one false move, which is damaging, if not quite as fatal as the critics who wrote the film off at Cannes 2011 would have you believe. It comes at the exact moment Melissa lets her hair down, at the beginning of the snapper's relationship with the very cop who earlier accused her of painting the unit in a bad light, at which point a film tough enough to show the consequences of smoking crack during a pregnancy becomes rather too loose for its own good. Maïwenn's chic-girl presence isn't the problem - I grant there may very well be photographers who put their hair up and wear granny specs in the hope of being taken seriously - it's how that presence has been integrated. This strand pulls the domestic business in the direction of the conventionally romantic, and opens up the film to accusations of soap operatics: momentarily, Polisse stops being about a group of dedicated individuals rescuing the vulnerable from harm, and instead about a glamorous writer-director-star saving a battle-hardened man from his own unfocused aggression. (If there's any element of autobiography in this, Maïwenn's objectivity may well be in question.)
Still, it's a rookie mistake, and one that may not matter, given how rich the film is elsewhere in extraordinary scenes and sequences: there's nothing so electrifying in cinemas right now as the moment when the squadroom's lone Algerian representative (Naidra Ayadi) tears into a Muslim father accused of selling off his daughter, although the final, explosive confrontation between Viard and Fois over their contrasting relationship choices - choices shown to have devastating consequences - cuts it close. The film's facility for shuffling between modes - turning from funny to heartbreaking on a centime, and then back again - and its reluctance to tie everything it broaches up in a neat bow has alienated some, evidently; but it makes Polisse an even more forceful tribute to the flexibility of this particular branch of the French authorities, and to the nature of work that sometimes, clearly, takes the gravest and most lasting of tolls.
Polisse is on selected release.