"I was scared nobody'd take me seriously," says Melissa, explaining to police officer Fred (rapper Joeystarr) why she has adopted a 'granny look' - fake glasses, severe hairstyle - while on assignment photographing the activities of a Child Protection Unit in Belleville, Paris. Given that Melissa is played by Maiwenn, who is also the film's director and writer, her words strike a self-conscious, even defensive note, as do the many discussions of what she chooses to take as her photographic focus. "Click-click-click as soon as a kid starts crying – that's not what we do," complains Fred, "It's more complex than that."
In fact, Polisse (named for the way a child might spell 'police') is more complex than that, and Melissa is not the only character to wear a mask. The film is organised around a series of different investigations into child abuse (incest, exploitation, abduction), all drawn from real-life cases. The result is a choppy, episodic structure, shot with handheld immediacy, in which the casually shocking, at times surreal particulars of the crimes are offset by details of the Unit's fractured personal lives.
By turns messianic and depressed about their work, the officers find various outlets for their frustration and anger: shouting and laughing inappropriately, philandering and man-hating, drinking, divorcing and dancing all night. They are coping mechanisms for a high-stress, high-stakes job where unspeakable trauma is part of the daily routine, and where the police's own actions are also sometimes questionable. "Nobody saw a thing," declares Fred after punching to the floor a well-connected paedophile (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), "the camera neither."
Even calling their boss (Frederic Pierrot) 'Papa', the Unit is revealed to be a highly dysfunctional, incestuous family, with Melissa, as both outsider and official witness, serving as our cicerone through their murky world. Yet it is to the credit of Maiwenn and her co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot that they have invested this character with a messiness that goes beyond the merely functional, in keeping with the film's slice-of-life realism.