Creating an account with gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.

Large article 150456455 marquee

The City of Lights Has a Mean Streak

Triple threat (writer/director/star) Maïwenn discusses her latest film, Polisse (TFF 2012), a gritty drama about a Paris Child Protective Services unit, based on real cases. Opening in NY and LA on Friday, May 18.

Polisse, one of the most powerful films that played at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, hits theaters on May 18 and VOD starting on May 25. This gritty cinema verite-style film follows a young photographer, Melissa (played by writer/director Maïwenn), on assignment with a tightly-knit group of cops in the Child Protection Unit of the Paris police department. At first, Melissa is shocked by the emotionally devastating cases involving child molesters, abusive parents, and psychologically damaged teens. Soon, however, she comes to admire the camaraderie among the police officers and appreciate the emotional support they provide to each other.

Nominated for 13 César Awards and based on research that delved into real Paris CPU cases, Maïwenn’s Polisse offers a gritty and unrelenting look into the work and lives of the police who serve in this front-line unit. We sat down with Maïwenn during TFF 2012 to discuss her latest film, her creative process, and her goals in making Polisse.

Tribeca: Your film was inspired by real-life cases of the Paris CPU. What first interested you in making Polisse?

Maïwenn: I really wanted to make a film about policemen and their work. I didn’t want to place too much importance on one case as opposed to another one, because if the film is only about one case, it becomes a detective story or a police film, rather than a film about people.

TRIBECA:  How did you first begin your internship with the Paris CPU?

MAÏWENN: There’s a great documentary on the Paris CPU, and after I saw the film, I called up the filmmaker and he agreed to meet with me. We talked, and he agreed to introduce me to some of the policemen. By the time he was able to introduce me, the staffing of the department had changed and the cops he had worked with had moved on. So I had a connection, but I didn’t quite have a connection. I had to do most of the groundwork by myself, in a sense.

TRIBECA: In addition to acting in the film, you and Emmauelle Bercot (who also stars in the film) co-wrote the script. Can you talk about your collaborative process?

MAÏWENN: For six months I wrote by myself, and then Emmauelle came in and helped me to start making choices. There was too much there, and I needed to cut down the stories. She helped me to make the right choices.

TRIBECA: The film felt very gritty; its cinema-verite style included the use of hand-held cameras, natural lighting and moving frames/zooms. How did you achieve the cinema-verite effect?

MAÏWENN: We used the techniques you describe, of course, and I also worked with two to the three cameras simultaneously. Sometimes we would follow the lines in the script closely and edit accordingly, but sometimes we would part from the prepared script, depending on the actors in the scenes and the opportunities we saw for improvisation. We wanted to present the story in an absolutely authentic way.

TRIBECA: I loved your use of music in the film. The light and bouncy tunes served as the perfect juxtaposition to the gritty nature of the film, especially in the opening. How did you choose the music?

MAÏWENN: Well, the song I originally wanted for the title sequence was Candy, because it in many ways represents the character I play. She kind of comes into the unit thinking that it will be like some sort of Disneyworld, and the actual reality of the situation is a wake-up call. But the rights for that song were unavailable, so I was guided to other possibilities. One of these was L’ile aux enfants, which we did ultimately use in the film. That ended up being the right choice all along.


TRIBECA: While Polisse is an incredibly harrowing film, there are these wonderful moments when the characters are able to blow off steam. I am thinking particularly of the scene in the nightclub. Could you talk about filming in the nightclub and the inspiration behind that scene?

MAÏWENN: For me, the nightclub scene was very, very important. A lot of people said to me that it was way too long, that I needed to cut in down, that these types of nightclubs don’t exist, etc. But for me, the emotion was palpable, and the film needed that in order to work.

TRIBECA: While the characters lead very difficult professional lives, there are moments of levity and joy off the clock. Was that reflected in the lives of the cops you followed?

MAÏWENN: Yes. When I first started my internship with the police, the humor was something that initially really shocked me. In a very short time, I came to really understand it, because it was the only way they could manage to keep going.

TRIBECA: One of the scenes that really stuck out to me was the mother who masturbates her son to keep him quiet. Was that based on a real case?


TRIBECA: What direction did you give to the actress involved in the scene?

MAÏWENN: I told her to believe in what she was saying, to not judge what she was doing, and to not insert any drama or comedy. I asked her to just be in the moment. I said, “This woman doesn’t know that it’s bad to do this to her son. She does it because she thought it would help her son.”

TRIBECA: Did you have a rehearsal period with your actors? As a writer/director, do you encourage improv?

MAÏWENN: I don’t have a rehearsal period with my actors. As for improv, it really depends on the actor. Sometimes if there were a lot of actors in one scene, I would allow them to improvise to make the scene feel more natural. People often have this misguided notion that improv is usually better, but if you over use it, very quickly people start chasing their tails. It can become very repetitious.

TRIBECA: Having watched the film now as an audience member, do you have any particular favorite moments?

MAÏWENN: I love the nightclub scene and when they are practicing their shooting. Also, I enjoy the scene when the couple breaks up as they are talking about the cell phone.


TRIBECA: How much of the film was shot on location and how much in a studio?

MAÏWENN: A lot of the film was shot on the set that we essentially built. The building was there, but it was on the market. So we redecorated it to look exactly like the real police precinct. I had taken my set designer to the precinct, and he took a lot of pictures so we could reproduce the look and feel of that environment. It was very simple because the precinct consisted of a number of large rooms in which there was a least one wall painted blue.

TRIBECA: You had a lot of young actors in the film. Were they professional actors?

MAÏWENN: Some were and some weren’t; it depended.

TRIBECA: Did you change your directorial approach when you were working with child actors?

MAÏWENN: No, I was exactly the same. I was completely honest with both the adults and children.

TRIBECA: Do you have advice for aspiring filmmakers out there?

MAÏWENN: Watch a lot of bad movies, because that’s the only way to notice what is wrong. When you understand what is wrong about these movies, you won’t repeat their mistakes. When you watch a good movie, you get so emotionally involved that you lose sight of the process. You stop being able to really learn from it.

TRIBECA: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

MAÏWENN: Maurice Pialat, because I feel so close to his movies. Also, James Gray. I would love to have lunch with James Gray and dinner with Maurice Pialat. I actually had already had dinner with James Gray in France, but I’d like to have another meal with him. [laughs]

TRIBECA: What’s your favorite New York movie?

MAÏWENN: You will laugh at me if I tell you. My cinematic tastes have really come out of my adolescence, and when I was an adolescent, all that I had is what was shown in the mass media on TV. I didn’t have a DVD or VHS player or anything like that. I’d have to say 9 ½ weeks and Working Girl.

TRIBECA: What would your biopic be called?

MAÏWENN: Genius.

TRIBECA: What makes Polisse a must-see?

MAÏWENN: It’s difficult for me to tell people why they should see my film, but I could easily ask why should they see any film? I would have trouble selling my film, but my film is not worse than any of the others. One thing I could say is that on paper, you think the film is going to be a really hard film to watch, but actually, audiences end up falling over laughing.

Polisse plays at the IFC Center starting May 18, with a VOD release to follow on May 25. 

Like Polisse on Facebook.


What you need to know today