Cannes Bummers, and the Curious Case of Polisse

Though I've covered lots of film festivals before, today at Cannes I had a staggering, if obvious, revelation: Going about your regular daily duties as a critic back home, there's no way you'd see one film about a teenage wacko who goes on a murder spree in his high school (We Need to Talk About Kevin), another about an adorable Aborigine kid who idolizes a local gangster-drug dealer (Toomelah, screening here in Un Certain Regard), and yet another about police officers who deal with sexually abused children in Paris, all in the same week. Here at Cannes, that's all in a day's -- maybe even an afternoon's -- work. Which is just one reason that single late-night glass of red Sancerre sometimes seems like the Holy Grail.

Writer-director-actress Maïwenn's Polisse, screening here in competition, is a curious little picture about a photojournalist assigned to cover the work of the Paris CPU, or child protective unit. (An opening title informs us that events depicted in the movie are based on real-life cases.) And it's a comedy, almost -- at the very least, it sometimes succeeds in finding humor in its grim subject. Director Maïwenn -- she goes by her first name only -- also appears in the film, and her judgment seems to be impaired when it comes to how much screen time she should get; the picture gets bogged down by an unnecessary romantic subplot that seems to exist only to flatter the director/actress' vanity. The movie also mimics the you-are-there immediacy (in other words, the undisciplined, shaky camera work) of television -- Polisse doesn't look bad; it's just not terrifically cinematic.

Polisse is an oddity and a mixed bag, but it does features some terrific French performers, including, in a small but potent role as a rape victim who delivers a stillborn baby, the young Alice de Lencquesaing (who also appeared in Olivier Assayas' quiet masterpiece Summer Hours). And it offers a few off-beat and original touches: For example, a group of police officers, in the course of questioning a young teenager who traded a blow-job for a phone, gently begin to explain to her why this is not something she ought to be doing. She looks at them with the straightest, most earnest face imaginable, and says, "But it was a smartphone." Not funny, right? Still, the group dissolves into laughter, capturing the way people in tough jobs often find inconvenient, even improper, ways to open up the pressure valves. It's a very real moment and a distinctive one, the kind of touch that gets you through the day -- or a movie.

[Photo of Maïwenn via Cannes Film Festival]