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Filmmaker finds creative stride with gritty cop tale 'Polisse'

May 21, 2012 | 11:46 am


The whippet-thin former model Maïwenn has the sort of life story that could easily inspire a movie.

The daughter of French actress Catherine Belkhodja, Maïwenn began acting well before age 10 — her first two films, 1981’s “Next Year If All Goes Well” and the 1983 thriller “One Deadly Summer,” both starred Isabelle Adjani. In 1991, when she was just 15, she began a love affair with director Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita”) and gave birth to a daughter, Shanna, two years later.

The couple split in the late ’90s, and Maïwenn tried her hand at stand-up comedy, writing and performing her own one-woman show. Although she continued acting, she transitioned behind the camera in 2006 with “Pardonnez-moi,” and it’s as a director that she says she’s finally found her creative calling.

Critics would appear to agree. Her third feature, “Polisse,” which opened in Los Angeles on Friday, is a gritty ensemble drama that has earned kudos for its strong performances and semi-documentary style storytelling. The story revolves around the dedicated police officers in Paris’ Child Protection Unit who fearlessly and obsessively track down pedophiles, molesters and parents who exploit their children.

“I spent a lot of time looking for myself,” Maïwenn, 36, said, during a recent visit to Los Angeles, speaking primarily in English but also with the aid of a translator. “I have done paint school, fashion school, photography school. ... I discovered with directing, I can put everything I love into one art.”

Although Maïwenn appears on camera in “Polisse” as a photographer who has been assigned to follow the unit and who strikes up a close relationship with another officer, played by French rap superstar Joeystarr, she described her work behind the scenes as the most gratifying.

She was inspired to write the script, which she completed with collaborator Emmanuelle Bercot, after watching a television documentary about the Child Protection Unit and its work. She obtained an “internship” with the unit and tried to use the experience to inform her screenplay, but she found herself at odds with the officers. “At first, they were not really kind to me,” she said. “They were suspicious. ... First of all, I am a woman and a woman who is going to do a movie about cops. It was like, ‘Oh-oh.’”

Her choice to cast Joeystarr further ruffled feathers. But the filmmaker says she wrote the role of Fred for the performer, who earned a supporting actor César nomination (France’s equivalent of the Academy Awards) for his turn in Maïwenn’s 2009 film “The Actress’ Ball.”

“He is known for his aggressivity and his violence,” she said of Joeystarr. “He has been to jail. He has been saying in songs that he hates police. They were really upset they were being represented by Joeystarr, which I respect completely, but when they saw the movie they apologized for that. ... When he met the members of the Child Protection Unit during his internship, they became so close they still have a relationship. They are friends.”

The film emphasizes the bonds that form among the officers — and the great toll that their physically and emotionally demanding line of work takes on their private lives. But Maïwenn also includes moments of humor to capture the very real way the CPU team tries to manage the day-to-day impact of witnessing so much painful trauma.

“Polisse” won the Jury Prize last year at the Cannes Film Festival and earned 13 César nominations, winning statuettes for editing and most promising actress for Naidra Ayadi.

Francois Truffart, director and programmer of the Los Angeles-based French film festival City of Lights, City of Angels, said he included “Polisse” in this year’s lineup because “it is one of the most important films of this year in France.”

“Maïwenn didn’t go to film school, but I think she’s very talented because she brings something new,” Truffart said. “She wants to give us some very powerful messages. She is a real artist in a sense she uses cinema to express herself.”

Jonathan Sehring, the president of the film’s U.S. distributor, Sundance Selects/IFC Films, described her as “a director to watch.”

Although the French film industry historically has been more welcoming to female directors than Hollywood — the first woman to direct a film was France’s Alice Guy, who began making movies in 1896 when cinema was in its infancy — Maïwenn said that a film set can still be a difficult place for a woman, much the same way that a police precinct can be cool to female officers.

“I feel it’s not natural for the community, for the society to be dominated by women,” she said. “I have met many women in my life who are the boss or a CEO and it is the same problem.”

Men, she said, still primarily regard women as wives and mothers. She relishes her relationship with her two children — she has a 9-year-old son, Diego, with her magazine publisher husband, Jean-Yves Le Fur — but she’s determined to continue to forge a career making films as well.

“As soon as I decide to make a movie and not pick up my kids from school and take a nanny, they are looking at me as if I am not normal,” Maïwenn said. “Society doesn’t give you a nice regard if you are not a full-time mommy.”


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Photo: Maïwenn. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

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