Unforgiving, hard hitting and emotionally turbulent, Polisse is the faux-documentary exposé starring Catherine Belkhodja, that provokes strong reactions.
The daughter of French actress Catherine Belkhodja, writer/ director Maïwenn married Luc Besson at 16 after he discovered her working in a bar. She starred as the alien diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element and as Alex in Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance), before turning to directing. For her third film Polisse, she embedded herself in the Child Protection Unit of the Parisian police service. In a candid interview, she tells i-D online what she learnt from working so closely with abused children, before turning their experiences into fiction.
When you were embedded with the Child Protection Unit, you must have gone into that with certain preconceptions. What surprised you about the experience? I really worked hard at being like a blank page, so I would only be surprised. Because I was so focused on the police themselves, I wasn’t really looking out for ostentatious storylines. I was focusing on the emotion of the cops.
Did they accept you? It was quite difficult, because I am a woman. Women in that environment constantly have to justify their position and presence as police. In my profession, most cop movies are made by men, I found myself in the same situation. I was quite shocked by their humour. It’s a grating sense of humour, but they use it as a support, as a defence mechanism. I began to go in the same direction with my sense of humour.
There was a lot of controversy at Cannes this year about the patriarchy of the film industry. Do you think you can make comparisons between the police service and the film industry? There’s obviously a parallel to be made. But I wouldn’t call myself a feminist in the way the women who wrote in Le Monde define themselves. I found that petition very distasteful and I’m completely against the idea that a quota must be met at film festivals. I see that as wrong.
I don’t understand why they don’t appreciate this job is a job that requires your masculine hormones to jump into action. That’s why there are more male directors than female directors. I come on set in touch with my masculine side; I’m there to fight and protect my crew.
Given how much you witnessed when you were embedded in the CPU, were you ever tempted to make a documentary? No, never.
Why not? Because it’s my job. I like to create stories. I like to match music and design costume and choose my actors and design the mise-en-scène.
So what decisions did you have to make to turn what you had witnessed in reality into a fictional drama? I wanted to give the idea of the daily grind. To make it seem ordinary. The reason why all the cases in the film don’t come to a closure is because the police men and women never get the answers.
Is it a job you can ever imagine having yourself? No never. I want to create things. I’m interested in fiction.
Film sets always seem to be on the brink of chaos, particularly ensemble dramas such as this. How did you handle that as the director? Did you have to be a very dominant figure on set? I had that sensation of everything almost going up in flames, and it’s true I like the feeling of dominating everything and being in control. I’m ready to adapt to potential catastrophes. The institution of a set does not accept things that aren’t planned but my way of thinking is very open to anything that is unplanned, so I often find myself very alone on set.
What did you learn about yourself from the experience of making this film? The shoot was very trying, and maybe I found out that I am more vulnerable than I thought I was.
What did you learn from spending so much time with the CPU? It’s difficult to say. Questions about childhood and child abuse have followed me in my life and I have thought about them for a long time. When I arrived at the CPU, I felt a lot of empathy for the paedophiles and the aggressors. I realised that everyone is a victim; the children, the policemen and the paedophiles.
Polisse is out in UK cinemas now.
Text: Tom Seymour