“Wait, is that right?” Maïwenn turns to her translator, sitting next to her on a couch in a downtown hotel suite, and says something in French; a rapid volley of exchanges in the filmmaker’s native tongue ensues before the 36-year-old turns back to her interviewer, a quizzical look on her face. “Rap? A gang rap?”
“Gang rape,” her translator says, correcting her.
“Oui, yes, right. Sorry. They’d get called to investigate a gang rape.” She smiles, and a slightly embarrassed look passes across her face for roughly a millisecond. Then it’s gone, replaced by her go-to steely stare. The single-named French actor-director-writer (she shortened it from Maïwenn Le Besco when she was in her teens; her younger sister, Isild, is also a cinematic hyphenate) speaks perfectly good English—better than perfectly good, really; but she’s asked the Tribeca Film Festival to make sure a translator is present while she’s doing interviews before the fest’s screening of her new movie, Polisse. Watching her stop herself midsentence to make sure she’s communicating clearly or, later, passionately correct her translator’s French-to-English phrasing (“No, not ‘I try’…I am.”), it’s clear that Maïwenn wants to get things absolutely, 100-percent right, and does not give the impression that she’ll settle for anything less.
You can see how she managed to transform an all-star roster of contemporary French actors—Karin Viard, Marina Foïs, Joey Starr, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Frédéric Pierrot, Emmanuelle Bercot, Karole Rocher and Jérémie Elkaïm—into a believably tight-knit group of cops working together in a Child Protective Unit (CPU). Or why, having seen a documentary about real-life CPU officers on French TV, Maïwenn could’ve called up the station the next day, convinced them to give her the unit’s phone number and talked her way into a monthlong “internship” with the unit.
“It wasn’t like I immediately thought, Oh, I have to make a film about out of this,” she says. “I was interested in them as people rather than characters—how one could handle these cases every day. You could be sitting around bored, reading the paper or talking to your fellow cops about politics or your boyfriend. Then suddenly, you’re interrogating a man who molested his daughter or a mother who dropped her baby. So I followed them around as an observer, asking a lot of questions. Gradually, I could see a story coming together.”
Several stories, in fact, since Polisse is nothing if not an ensemble piece: As viewers follow various officers throughout their daily routines, we glimpse relationships, family lives, and personal trials and tribulations. But like Maïwenn’s previous directorial effort, the celebrity mockumentary The Actress’ Ball (2009), her precinct procedural is all about group dynamics—how these different people function as a single organism of law enforcement, the manner in which they joke with each other and get on their partners’ nerves, and the way they have each other’s backs on and off the job. Though the cast only had one intense weeklong crash course to get up to speed (“Watching documentaries in the morning, having lunch with the cops and then grilling them about every aspect of the job, eight hours a day”), there’s a palpable sense of teamwork in every exchange and every high-speed pursuit; combined with the film’s you-are-there stylistics, it’s easy to believe you’re actually witnessing a real CPU squad going about their hectic daily business.
“I wanted the actors to forget there were cameras around,” she says. “It’s like reality TV: Everybody on those shows seems very self-conscious at first, very broad. Then after three or four days, they stop acting—and suddenly, you see a while different person emerge. The notion on set was always: Don’t give me Day One. Give me Day Nine.”
It’s not late-stage reality shows that Polisse resembles, however, so much as television’s serial cop shows and multicharacter dramas; after the movie premiered at Cannes last year, both positive and negative comparisons to Law & Order, CSI and The Wire could be heard up and down the Croisette. Maïwenn shrugs off such notions, claiming that she hasn’t seen those programs (“The last thing I watched on TV was 24, and I don’t think Polisse is anything like that”); she also dismisses the rumor that her role—she plays a photographer who tags along with the CPU—is a mere reflection of her real-life tenure with the cops. “My character is very withdrawn,” she declares firmly. “I asked a lot of questions; I was anything but shy. In fact, several of the cops were pretty rude to me because I wouldn’t leave them alone. After the film was released, they apologized: ‘We’re sorry, we didn’t realize what you were going for. Thank you for making us look good.’ ”
Indeed, in the wake of Polisse’s resounding success in France, the media began to focus on the work that actual CPU divisions do—almost overnight, these cops went from being ignored to lauded as unsung heroes. “And their superiors, who don’t come off very good in the movie, told me, ‘You made my character a jerk, but that’s fine; I actually am a jerk to those guys most days.’ I’m very proud of the fact that, thanks to the film, these officers are finally getting their due.” Then she leans forward and says, conspiratorially, “Even Nicolas Sarkozy loves the movie,” referring to France’s ex-president and the subject of one Polisse character’s vitriolic rant. “Maybe I’m not so proud of that fact.” Maïwenn smiles broadly. Then her disciplined stare snaps right back into place.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfearPolisse opens Fri 18 at IFC Center.