During bad times I watch a lot of Law & Order: SVU. Partly because it is always on—there’s a rule there must be some kind of L&O marathon airing 24 hours a day—but mostly because there is something so reassuring about the way sensitive Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and hot-head Eliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) valiantly hunt down abusive parents, rapists, pedophiles, child pornographers, serial killers, sex traffickers, perverse murderers. My private sadnesses are nothing compared with the panoply of horrible crimes faced by the SVU, but in my dark moods, I find myself transfixed by the incorrigible, impractical virtue of those tortured crusaders. In each hour-long episode, the duo tackles cases that bring up difficult moral questions about how and why people hurt each other, the way humans can be unfeeling or cruel or brutal, the choices we make in pursuit of our own happiness. What Benson and Stabler end up exploring is humanity’s awful capacity for inhumanity. Even in the depraved world of SVU, there is no good or evil, no vast conspiracy of persecution. Fucked up people fuck each other up. The rest of us are left to make sense of it all.

Polisse, a new film by French actress/writer/director Maïwenn (who also starred in her own 2006 directorial debut, Pardonnez-moi ), appeals to that desire to look for righteousness in a randomly cruel world. Melding documentary-style grittiness with broad melodrama, the sprawling ensemble drama, co-written with Emmanuelle Bercot (who also appears in a supporting role) is based on the cases and stories Maïwenn recorded when she spent some weeks with an actual Child Protection Unit of the Paris Police. Winner of the 2011 Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the film tries to convey the horror, banality, and glory of collaring and interrogating molesting fathers, abusive mothers, exploiting uncles, and defiantly sexual teenagers, while showing how the men and women of the CPU balance their work with their private lives (usually not well).

That tendency toward gimmicky self-reflexivity undermines Polisse’s genuinely ecstatic moments.

The episodic structure of the film and hand-held camerawork mimic the frenetic pace and short attention span required by police work. Suffering victims and unrepentant suspects shuffle in and out of the excessively bright office of the CPU as if they were visiting the DMV, while the officers sit on the other side of the desk, recording their statements with the weariness of overworked bureaucrats. Of the many cases featured in the movie, none is followed to its conclusion in court. The emphasis is not on justice, but on cataloguing the crimes and characters that fall under the CPU’s purview. A woman glibly describes masturbating her infant to get him to sleep; a wealthy businessman brags about raping his daughter; a child accuses her grandfather of rubbing her inappropriately. Through it all the cops stare and nod as they type the details into their reports.

Occasionally the mask slips and reveals the volatile emotions swirling beneath the official surface. Muslim cop Nora (Naidra Ayadi) screams at a bearded religious man who refuses to respect her authority. Broody Fred (French hip-hop artist Joeystarr) punches an influential suspect in the face for bragging that he will never go to jail, then unleashes his fury at the chief of police. When a flummoxed teen explains that she performed fellatio in exchange for her cell phone, the officers dissolve into irrepressible giggles. One even performs the international sign of the BJ, her stretched cheek with her tongue.

These moments are brief, but they point to the tension inherent in such emotionally taxing policework. No amount of rage or laughter will undo or prevent a child’s exploitation. This reality is devastating on a personal and professional level. Marriages crack up. Relationships between partners in the squad fizzle and fray. In a particularly heart-rending scene, the team finds itself unable to find shelter for an immigrant mother and her son. We watch as the boy, deaf to their empty reassurances that he is not being abandoned, sobs himself to exhaustion in their arms. Fred kisses his wet cheeks with the sorrowful tenderness of an apologetic father. But he’s not his father; he won’t be able to keep the child safe. The scene lasts longer than you’d expect, and when it ends, we don’t see the boy again. Maïwenn seems to have concluded that what we need is some on-screen catharsis—and she’s not wrong.

The film falters, though, when the director makes a direct play for our sympathy. In an extraneous and overwrought melodramatic plot line, Maïwenn herself appears as a shy photojournalist who is assigned to shadow the CPU via her aristocratic partner’s connections with the police chief. Elegant but school-marmy, Melissa lurks quietly with her expensive camera until Fred accuses her of making the team look like bad guys. “When the kids cry, you’re there,” his sneers heavy-handedly, implicating our own morbid gaze. Later, when the unit is celebrating an arrest by spending the night out at the disco, he commands her to shake out her mousy bun and remove her trick glasses (“I was scared no one would take me seriously,” she explains), giving her one of those cliché nerd-to-sexpot makeovers common in bad teen movies.

In the shooting range the next morning, Melissa’s shutter clicks as the bullets fly, creating a visual echo that suggests a flattering equivalence between the observer and the observed. Fred entreats her to take a turn, and she gasps with orgasmic delight as the firearm kicks back in her hands. The overly telegraphed sexual tension and their inevitable but underdeveloped romance feels both gratuitous and superficial. They found a love in a hopeless place. So what? What does it mean to for the CPU? Most frustratingly, we never see Melissa’s photographs, nor understand how her work there impacts the unit as a whole; the filmmaker seems to feel that the presence of the camera, her presence, is enough to suggest cinematic ennoblement of her subjects. That tendency toward gimmicky self-reflexivity undermines Polisse’s genuinely ecstatic moments, such as the moving sequence in which a busload of tearful Romanian children, recently removed from their parents’ squalid shanty town, shed their fearful scowls and begin dancing joyfully in the aisles to an upbeat radio ditty. The sound of their easy laughter is enough to make you believe, if only just for a moment, that there is love in that hopeless place.

Polisse will be released by Sundance Selects this Friday, May 18, in New York and Los Angeles.

Rose Lichter-Marck

Rose Lichter-Marck is a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn. She is on Twitter at @roseolm.

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