Feeling ambivalent about Polisse . . . for now | Bleader

Feeling ambivalent about Polisse . . . for now

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Goldie Hawn as Serpico: Karin Viard (left) in Polisse
  • Goldie Hawn as Serpico: Karin Viard (left) in Polisse
Though I disagree with Dave Kehr’s 1981 assessment of Thief (reprinted in this week’s Reader), I found it instructive when revisiting the film at the Music Box on Saturday. “[Michael] Mann’s observations are trite, derivative, and frequently sentimental,” wrote Kehr in his capsule review, adding that “the visual style is strictly small screen.” I can understand how he came to these conclusions when the movie first came out. At the time, Mann had only worked in television, and few audiences were likely aware of his appreciation of filmmakers like Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni (though it’s worth noting that the climax of Thief references Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point!) Did anyone predict in 1981 that Thief’s “head-bonking close-ups” (Kehr again) would evolve, in films like The Insider and Collateral, into one of the most richly textured styles in contemporary movies? Or that Mann’s apparently shallow psychologizing may have been something else entirely, an ambivalent, even Antonioniesque look at how professional routine can streamline identity?

One of the functions of film criticism is to situate movies within larger contexts, to encourage readers to look at movies in a variety of ways before drawing their own conclusions. Of course, different critics will provide different contexts—it makes sense for Kehr, writing in 1981, to assess Thief in terms of TV or “the neo-macho axis of Scorsese, Cimino, and Schrader,” rather than of a distinctive style that was still taking shape. The film’s extended shots of industrial machine operation—which anticipate Mann’s obsessive attention to detail when depicting firearm use in his later work—probably seemed like stylistic tics then. Yet Kehr’s perspective is still valuable: in assessing how Thief fails to meet expectations set by those other filmmakers, Kehr points to where Mann began paving his own path.

I’ve been thinking about this piece while reevaluating the French drama Polisse, which opened this past weekend at the Landmark. My initial impressions of the film were conflicted. In my capsule review, I compared cowriter-director Maïwenn Le Besco’s style to that of Belgian masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and her content to soap operas, noting that the film seemed more interested in the love lives of her child protection officers than in their actual police work. If taken as an issue movie about child abuse, then Polisse is a whopping failure: these characters are so catty and vain it feels like you're watching the workings of a high school yearbook club. Yet there’s enough about Polisse to suggest Maïwenn isn’t interested in making issue movies at all, and I wonder if criticizing the film for failing to meet my expectations of that genre might prove shortsighted as she develops as an artist.

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Take the film’s interrogation scenes, for instance. They’re impressive displays of improvised, emotional acting, yet it’s so clear in all of them that everybody is acting (indeed, the movie often plays like a series of audition tapes). This performance style, adopted by pretty much the entire cast, creates an operatic tone that clashes loudly with the documentary-like visual style. Lars von Trier has created similar dissonance in movies like Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, yet he tends to present these things as experiments or stunts. Maïwenn suggests no detachment from her subjects: for better or worse, Polisse is an unironic film.

Her approach can be disarming when she’s confronting her characters’ social lives. All the officers are looking for love, falling out of love, or unsure of what to do with love once they find it: the demands of their work keep them from being good lovers. This experience isn’t unique to police officers (it’s common enough among professional actors), and Polisse recognizes it candidly. I also was impressed with Maïwenn’s positive consideration of friendship in the Facebook era. The officers seem to be close friends, providing each other during personal crises with the sort of help traditionally associated with spouses or immediate family. They’re honest, sensitive, and aware of their own feelings, which they share across a social network that combines elements of work and domestic intimacy.

Still, there’s as much blatant wish-fulfillment in Polisse as there is revelation. In the movie’s centerpiece, the extended family of officers goes out drinking to let off some steam, and a quasi-musical number erupts as they all dance to a song on the stereo. Life can still be grand! Work hard, play hard, everybody! The scene is likely a deal breaker for some viewers. It represents such a disruption of the realistic style that one might have trouble taking the movie seriously after that. I had trouble, but I still admired Maïwenn’s willingness to embarrass herself in pursuit of doing her own thing (or, for that matter, being optimistic). I’ll be curious to revisit Polisse in another few decades, after her idiosyncrasies have withered or taken root.

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