In her fourth feature, writer-director Maïwenn acts, behind face-covering horn rims, as Mélissa, a naïve but driven photojournalist embedded in the Paris police's CPU (Child Protection Unit). On a hot dog break, one officer (Fred, played by French rapper Joeystarr) erupts at her, accusing her of only photographing him and his colleagues slacking off or bungling assignments. He thinks she has an agenda. The scene and her character function as a canny bit of preventative auto-critique, a way for Maïwenn to remind herself what not to do as a director, and a way to acknowledge that she knows her aim (total objectivity) is impossible.
Still, Maïwenn tries her best to show and not tell, hence handheld camera, flat institutional lighting, little makeup, "accidental" dialogue, etc.—the default modern non-style that audiences have been conditioned to recognize as "realistic", and which helped earn Polisse the Jury Prize at Cannes. Her fellow actors follow suit. As if in some sort of sincerity contest, each competes to see who can look the most overworked, stressed out and generally beleaguered (while still passionate about protecting Paris's children). Of course, most are allowed one Loud Cathartic Outburst, that obligatory hallmark of realistic cop dramas, a moment when all of that underacting is squandered in a melodramatic fit (Karen Viard's seams-showing tirade is the worst one here). The risk of vérité narrative cinema like this is that these false notes stand out more glaringly, and call the integrity of the whole project into question.
The cases and events in the screenplay (co-star Emmanuelle Bercot co-wrote it) are based on actual things Maïwenn observed when she performed her own embedded research with the CPU. It plays like a greatest (?) hits of incestuous pedophilia, child abuse, and kid crime cases, which is awkward because the movie takes place over such a short stretch of time. A mother, taken into questioning for shaking her baby, reveals blithely that she puts her restless older son to sleep with handjobs. The crew raids a trailer park where the adults have been sending the children out en masse as an armed gang. A father (Louis-Do de Lencquesain from The Father of My Children) basically admits to molesting his daughter, but since he has friends in high bureaucratic places, the unit is told to let him go. It's grim work, and the warriors are damaged. Married Fred over-drinks and is in love with the also-attached Mélissa. Iris (Marina Foïs) is bulimic and suicidal. Another one is going through divorce and custody issues. Nevertheless, the CPU tries to keep a sense of humor, laughing at a girl who performed oral sex to get back her pilfered smartphone, and regularly going to clubs to dance away the horror. This "levity" isn't funny, though, because it feels so manufactured and mandatorily inserted, because "real people laugh inappropriately too."
Maïwenn was inspired to write Polisse (the spelling is how a kid might mis-write the French for "police") after watching a television documentary about the real CPU. Then she made it in the most "realistic" style possible, with actors straining to appear the most world-wearily normal. The question is why, if the documentary version already existed? Grasping for maximum authenticity, Polisse ends up feeling not only phony, but also redundant.