05/16/2012 07:58 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Movie Review: Polisse

Maiwenn Le Besco's Polisse is tough and compelling, a police drama with no real plot but, rather, a snapshot slice-of-life of a group of Paris cops coping with what may be the most demanding assignment on the force.

They are the members of the Child Protection Unit, charged with investigating everything from runaways to sexual abuse. Their daily work brings them in contact with some of society's saddest cases because their clientele includes its youngest, most vulnerable victims.

Le Besco, who also appears in the film, was inspired by a documentary on the real CPU. She interviewed its members, then cowrote her script based on the experiences she'd been told about. Her film encompasses the day-to-day lives of the members of the CPU squad, whose cases seem to come and go with surprising speed and disheartening regularity.

We see the squad members interviewing victims and perpetrators, coaxing or browbeating confessions or statements. A little girl will casually mention that, while bathing her, her father "scratches" her bottom. A teen offhandedly mentions offering sex in exchange for a cell phone; a mother dragged in for shaking her baby viciously in public says that her older son (who looks to be about 3) is easier to get to bed at night when she gives him a handjob.

In between, we get a taste of the interaction between the members of the squad -- between the group as a whole and between partners. It's obviously intense work, creating similarly fraught bonds between colleagues. One pair -- played by Marina Fois and Karin Viard -- shares secrets about their personal lives, serve as each other's confidantes and, ultimately, wind up with bitter recriminations against each other.

The humor of these officers, however, is defensive, combating the tragedy and absurdity of otherwise unsettling situations. It's gallows humor, to be sure -- and it usually accompanies those rare moments when the squad is able to prevent a tragedy, rather than clean up after one.

The tension sometimes derives from struggles within the precinct itself. It might be the departmental hierarchy (the narcotics squad is given preference over CPU) or the commander's unwillingness to step in to make a difference when he might. Each member of the squad brings his or her demons to the job; it's hard to tell what might set an officer off.

Le Besco also offers a glimpse of the home life of the officers, where spouses have no interest in hearing about life on the job. But these are cops who can't help bring their work home with them. It could be anything from a raid on a gypsy encampment to take the children -- who are being trained as pickpockets -- into custodial care or watching a rape victim give birth to stillborn child, from which DNA will be taken to charge her attacker.

The director has a large and varied cast, all of whom bring different facets to the job. Fois is the tightly strung cop who urges Viard to leave her unfaithful husband, while hiding her own anorexia. Joeystarr is the mixed-race tough guy with a tender heart for abandoned children. Frederic Pierrot is their long-suffering squad leader, who must serve as buffer between hot-tempered cops and their chilly chief (Wladimir Yordanoff).

The film's one flaw is Le Besco herself. She plays a photojournalist who is embedded with the CPU to shoot their daily doings. At first given the cold shoulder, she gradually is accepted, becoming involved with one of the squad members. But her presence distracts from, rather than illuminates or adds to, the reality of the film.

Without her, the film might be 10-15 minutes shorter and even more headlong than it is. Even so, Polisse is gripping and powerful, an unsentimental look at a thankless job where the victories are hard fought and all too rare.

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