France (127 mi) 2011 d: Maïwenn
While this is a fictional cinéma vérité, documentary style film following the exploits of the daily activities and experiences of a team of investigators in the Child Protective Unit (CPU) of the Parisian police, whose job it is to investigate child runaways, sex trafficking, rape, and acts of pedophilia, except for a controversial slo-mo and stop action shot at the very end, there isn’t a single shot in the entire film that feels like a fictional film. Stated bluntly, this is one of the best ensemble casts assembled lately, where their work is a brilliantly harrowing display of realism on the job, where in each and every sequence, the actors just nail it. The group is a tightly wound team that routinely interrogates both children and adults, trying to separate truth from fantasy, often forced into using intimidation tactics, where the camera is near invisible and the overlapping dialog couldn’t be more naturalistic. Their attention to detail is simply outstanding, where workers go overboard on occasion and fly off the handle, often comically, yet the pressure for instant results, to eradicate the danger, is everpresent, revealing flaws inherent in the human condition, from the high profile tensions to the petty grievances they all incur, where the intensity of the job eats away at their personal lives, where the damage takes its toll with deteriorating relationships that seem pretty standard for the job, despite their obvious attempts to place their children as their #1 priority in their lives. While America is already inundated with police shows, which are so prevalent they have become synonymous with American culture, producing some of the more popular shows on American television, attracting some of the best writers and actors, from CSI, Law & Order, The Closer, Dexter, and The Wire (2002 – 2008), all still in production except the latter, however, this is not the case in France, where the filmmaker claims she has not seen and is not familiar with any of these shows. Instead, what she has recreated has instinctively been captured by witnessing police actions on the street, where as a photo journalist she was an intern embedded with various police units before ever writing this film. American critics have near unanimously complained this film reminds them of watching The Wire, while European critics have simply judged the film itself, where it won the Jury Prize as the 3rd best film in Competition at Cannes in 2011. There are no heroes in this film which offers few cures for the world’s ills, though people may be surprised at the level of confrontation that exists in the police investigation process, which can get terribly messy at times and is a different culture than what is portrayed in America where police forcefully, and often brutally, put suspects on lockdown, but it’s the raw and unsanitized aspect of a humanity allowed to live and breathe that makes this film unique.
Stylistically, the film uses an episodic structure, quickly moving from case to case, often at breathtaking speed, exhibiting a kind of hyperkinetic flurry of activity with little time between incidents to emotionally process what’s happened, where often cops will build up personal resentments when the higher ups disregard their needs, often placing them, and the children they’re employed to protect, in jeopardy. The tense, claustrophobic feel of cops literally working on top of cops personifies the close-knit working atmosphere, where little happens without the entire team being involved, where what one feels, they all feel, sympathizing with those handling the most difficult cases, where they are usually called upon to provide immediate intervention at street level, as police are not allowed to act until the CPU arrives ushering the often traumatized children to safety. While the actual circumstances of cases can be graphically cruel and horrific, the daily grind can be emotionally draining, where these cops have to process the information right alongside their family lives. What works best over time is the developing familiarity the audience has with most of the characters, where we’re literally a fly on the wall at their workplace, where we don’t miss a thing, from rolled eyes, personal innuendos, slang cultural expressions (never favorable), to rising inflections in voices showing exasperation, to heated exchanges between partners, fellow co-workers, or with bosses, adding vulgar and profane expressions of more frustration on the job, all of which captures the authenticity of the moment. One might take issue with the director interjecting herself in the proceedings as a photo journalist, usually sitting off to the side continuously taking candid photos, careful never to interfere. But eventually she becomes a love interest with one of the cops, and some may find this distracting, as she’s not one of the CPU professionals, which is really the subject of the film, yet she’s elevated herself in status by being placed so often in front of the camera, which feels needless, as her bourgeois personal life feels awkwardly superficial in comparison, though it does reveal a kind of culture shock that many in the audience may similarly share. Co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot is also integrated into the cast and figures prominently as one of the more outspoken police investigators.
Ultimately what this film does best is provide a graphic, no holds barred portrait or cross section of social realism, exposing the prevalence of an unpleasant underbelly in society that is too often overlooked and misunderstood (as there seems to be no successful treatment for recurring acts of pedophilia), right alongside the social dynamic of a particularly difficult police unit that has a way of destroying lives with regularity, while also taking a glimpse at friendships and family life, including a look at children in school during their most impressionable years, where parents joyously walk them to school on their first day, but a month or so later, some outcast kids are getting preferential treatment in gym class for performing sexual favors. Listening to some of these kids describe what’s happened to them is heartbreaking, especially a teen rape victim that gives birth to a stillborn, an unimaginably difficult personal experience, where perhaps the most crushing scene in the film is an African mother and young son who are homeless, where literally no shelters in the city will take them, so she’s voluntarily bringing her son to the police so he can sleep in a bed instead of on the street. There is an unstated suggestion of racial discrimination, as even the police fail in their attempts to find them space together, literally mandating a forced separation, a cruel act the young boy simply doesn’t understand, where his unanswered wailing brings no relief. Most all of the sequences have this emotionally wrenching, unfinished quality about them, as that’s the way the police live with these cases, as they’re only familiar with the beginning, often the most traumatic aspects, never knowing how these stories will end up, whether anyone will be prosecuted or whether they’ll be set free. From their view on the ground, the imperfections of the world rub off on their shoulders, literally staining their lives with an unseen layer of inconsolable anguish and grief, where seemingly every child needs protection, as an alarming number of kids pass through their doors. One sequence, however, stands out from all the rest, a cause célèbre, a reason to celebrate, as a dropped and injured child was taken to a hospital in a coma where he awoke with no major damage, one of life’s minor victories, so they all go out to a neighborhood bar and celebrate with drinking and dancing, where everyone participates, everyone dances and blows off steam, and all, at least for the moment, forget their personal squabbles—a brilliantly directed scene that joyously celebrates life and the powerful significance of just what it is they are empowered to protect every day.