After winning the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, it was only time before Maïwenn’s third film, Polisse, would make its way into American cinemas. The actress-turned-director and writer may be best known to audiences in the states for her roles in films such as High Tension and The Fifth Element, but she has been writing and acting throughout her entire career, leading up to her most lauded work to date. Both unnerving and jarring, Polisse dives into the world of France’s Child Protection Unit, a police division that handles the children’s safety from sexual abuse to teen crimes. Based on real cases, the film gives a broad overview of the daily life in the unit and they way in which these police must deal with keeping their work and personal lives at a distance. Maïwenn not only co-wrote and directed the film, but she also co-stars as a photojournalist sent in the document the unit. We spoke to Maïwenn about taking on such a heavy subject, how she and her actors prepared, and the challenges of having such a multi-hyphenated job title.
Were you nervous about taking on a kind of story with this subject matter?
Well, I was afraid but I’m always afraid when I decide to make a movie, which is good for me to be afraid of.
What were you afraid of with this story specifically?
I was afraid to make an easy movie because the subject was so dark and sad, and I didn’t to put this frivolity in front of the movie. That was a trap and I didn’t want to fall into it.
How did you go about writing the script? What was your process and research like?
Well, I decided to make a choice for the cases; I wanted to have normal cases, basic cases; I didn’t want to have spectacular cases. I didn’t want to show them as heroes, so it was really important for me to not have a judgment against them and not love them too much. Otherwise it’s a pro-police movie, which I think it is not.
Through interning, were you surprised at what you found or discovered?
I was surprised by the statement of sexuality with teenagers. They don’t have any taboos anymore—they know everything from the internet or Facebook. It was a new world in front of me, and I felt so old when I discovered that now they all know everything about sexuality. They’re completely lost with the love subject; it’s not because you have Facebook or the internet that you know how love works. I found them very lost, actually.
Your cases were based on real cases. Were the characters also based on real people?
No, the actual characters were just created from my imagination. The characters are not based on the real cops because, in the film, I am staying with only one group. In reality I was not staying with one group; I was moving everyday… everyday I was changing groups. I think it’s much stronger if we only follow one group to get to know them more deeply.
There was an interesting dynamic between the different departments—the CPU and the other police departments clashing sometimes. Is that how it was when you went and studied with them and something you wanted to shed light on?
Yes, it was actually quite true to reality. The CPU and the other departments—it’s a very tense relationship. The CPU isn’t respected; they’re not looked up to. They actually have a nickname in French, which translates to Milk Bottle Cops or the Milk Bottle Unit. When you imagine yourself as a cop, you don’t imagine yourself behind a desk talking with a kid. You picture a cop car and a gun. These are cops that do something very different from other cops, and they’re looked down upon by the other agencies.
Throughout the film you go from these very dark heart-wrenching moments to scenes that are lighter and more comical in a sense. Did you want to create that dichotomy to make it not so harsh of a film?
I chose to do this because that is reality: this is how they are. They use humor to be able to keep standing on their feet rather than collapsing—so it’s just real.
How did the actors prepare for their roles? Did they go through training as well?
They did a workshop right before the shoot. They were locked in a room like school for the day with cops from the CPU, so they had a deep coaching for one week: watching documentaries, talking with cops all day long, training with guns, etc. I did an internship, and they did a workshop.
You open the film with “The Island of Children,” which comes off as a very happy, light song—a decision that seems almost sinister.
I loved the song, and it’s quite scary and atrocious to have these children juxtaposed with this song, which is from Sesame Street in the ‘70s. The lyrics of the song say things like, “the island of the children, there’s the good guys and the bad guys.” It’s really exactly what the movie is about, and so I thought it was a very sarcastic way to introduce my subject.
Did you find challenges in being the writer, director, and actor?
I’ve done all of that for my three movies. For this one, I figured out that it was a mistake because the character that I’m playing is the opposite of my position on the set. On the set I am the boss and have to give energy to all the crew and to the actors. I have to carry all the problems on my back. My character is the opposite: she’s wild and she’s lost, and I found out that difficult for me to deal with. I think you cannot play anything you want when you direct a movie; it has to match with the energy that you need when you direct yourself.
Are you hoping that a film like this will sort of expose your work to more mainstream American audiences?
Well, I didn’t make the movie to have that. I’ve been so faithful to my desire, and I never even expect the success that I had in France. To me it was like a miracle, you know; no one believed in the movie, no one wanted to give money for that. I was so shocked and surprised and happy and proud to have this success in France. It’s not my goal to be popular; my goal is to keep the desire to always make a movie. It’s like when you decide to get married to someone: your biggest hope is to stay in love with them.
Do you hope to continue with films like this that are not just meant to entertain but show something important?
I will say most likely, but I have to admit that with Polisse, I did this despite myself. It wasn’t my intention; really, I just set out to make a movie. I don’t really have this intellectual relation or this remote intellectual step in my process. I just do things.