by Trevor Link
It goes without saying that the subject matter of Polisse is dispiriting and heartbreaking: a group of police officers working for the Child Protection Unit (or CPU) in Paris deal, on a daily basis, with cases involving rape, abuse, prostitution and organized crime. To compound this bleakness, the details of these cases were, in fact, drawn from real life: director and co-writer Maïwenn spent time following actual officers and constructed her film from events she witnessed or heard about during that time. This patina of ultra-realism coats the events in the film, making them reverberate beyond the screen and suggesting, for each unimaginable horror, a series of unseen but real-life analogues. Maïwenn wisely eschews the tedious offering of answers; her film is instead satisfied in tracing the outline of a vast problem, letting its shape impress an urgent tenseness upon us. Unable to intervene, Maïwenn’s camera can only observe, bringing us back once again to a fundamental question of cinema: to what extent can merely seeing the events of the world—bearing witness to them—actually matter?
Polisse is most interesting when it stays faithful to this ocular theme. As Carol J. Clover has noted in her study of horror films, the eye itself, despite being considered a source of domination (the gaze), is actually quite vulnerable and penetrable (the eyeball-impaling sequence from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 drives this point home quite strikingly). Filmmakers have moreover understood the camera, like the eye, to be an instrument of control and even aggression—its phallic associations reached a climax in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which coupled masculine ineffectuality and truth’s elusiveness: together, a lack of mastery. These associations are reversed in Polisse through the character of Mélissa (played by Maïwenn herself), a photographer tasked with documenting the work of the CPU. Mélissa embodies the eye’s vulnerability, and her camera bestows upon her the power of empathy, an uncontrollable receptivity that manifests as an openness to the plight of others. Following the CPU around, she becomes shaken by the horror she sees, the documentation of which cannot console her, but her role is to look—to look only—and take in what she sees, the camera and the eye functioning in tandem.
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