Polisse does it right.
Maiwenn’s French film about the conflicts and burdens of life for those working in the Child Protection Unit (CPU) culls its narrative from the shared experience of multiple characters without the mess or pretension of the Bloated Emotionally Epic Film (BEEF e.g. Magnolia, Amores Perros, Traffic, Crash, Any Given Sunday, Bobby, Thank You for Smoking, The Ice Storm, Short Cuts, &c.).
Maiwenn’s film doesn’t follow the three-act structure every post-Syd Field screenwriting self-help manual diagrams. Curiously, there were a few film reviews I read that dinged the picture for a “messy narrative.”
Polisse is not a character study of one individual, but of the CPU as a whole.
Its structure is more episodic, generally moving from one CPU case to another. The omission of character backstories and resolutions lets the loose narrative soak in the pressures and conflicts of a CPU officer’s daily lifestyle. In watching the film, the major chunk of tension doesn’t come from wondering whether they catch certain perpetrators (there are none, really – the antagonist is the job itself).
Even though nearly every officer is experiencing some sort of relationship disruption, the story’s tension doesn’t come from whether or not they’ll resolve the issues with their romantic partners – their romantic lives take lower priority to a career they love, a career that bonds them together (romantically, in some cases). A few of the film’s other common themes concern the difficulty of being a parent and being a CPU officer.
The film’s greatest flaw is its ending. The film ends with the juxtaposition of a previously abused child, a gymnast, and a self-abusive CPU officer. And it doesn’t feel right. It’s a poor, even false way to tie the film together, precisely because it’s subjecting its story to the same errors as a BEEF.
Most BEEFs juxtapose poor/thin storylines to drain a greater emotional payoff from the juxtaposition rather than from the strength of the individual storylines themselves, ones too weak to exist on their own. In Polisse, the gymnast scene doesn’t have the traction to make any believable impact and it cheapens the significance of the CPU officer’s actions. It comes out of nowhere and undermines the picture’s unique narrative. Without the gymnast scene, Polisse had a killer ending.
Even though Polisse‘s ending intercuts between the gymnast and CPU officer thereby weakening the film as a whole, the comparison through intercutting isn’t a poor method – it can be used quite well by some filmmakers. But in BEEFs, it comes off the wrong way. Why? BEEFs suffer from the story-shotgun effect with each story’s impact diminishing because of the filmmaker’s bloated ambitions.
BEEFs are more concerned with the viewer seeing the connection between scenes or stories rather than telling a good story.
BEEFs and Tarantino
Though I’m averse to discussing the worth of Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker (an obnoxious one), banking o his well-known filmography, I want to use two of his films for a BEEF digression.
Pulp Fiction is a BEEF. Inglourious Basterds is not.
Pulp Fiction‘s ambitions aren’t nearly as pretentious as some of the earlier mentioned BEEFs, but it still relies on its mega-story interconnectedness as a point of entertainment – it drags in its forcing. The thematic association between stories seems much more imposed than natural and the film ventures on several tangents that do little more than pad the film (even as entertaining as these tangents might be, they still detract).
Inglourious Basterds improves on the near-episodic structure of Pulp Fiction by disregarding the latter’s mega-story ambitions. IB is a revenge fantasy with several faces. BEEFs try to tackle so many themes so as to become a grand story about nothing, or at least, a story with some parts standing out more than others.
BEEFs want to be about the world, about life and its meaning (and this sentence grows progressively vague just like its subject).
Movies like Polisse and IB single out one emotion (or theme, in its barest definition) as the focus and motivation for the narrative. Movies like these are more experience than plot and much closer to partaking in the unique role of cinema than any other medium.
In this way, these films are more like a few carefully chosen jewelry pieces than BEEFs, which weigh every limb and anatomical protrusion with jangling spectacle. BEEFs aren’t remembered for their beauty so much as their desperate cry of “this is beautiful!”
The structure of IB is delineated into chapters (I always find the Aldo Raine/Basterds chapter to be the weakest part) that begins with hatred and bullet-ridden floorboards, it ratchets up the loathing characters feel for each other and ends with the bullet-torn face of Hitler. The film moves so quickly and keeps up the energetic momentum despite the multiple characters and chaptered “plots.” It’s not burdened with any attempts to be more than it is and thus becomes much more than just a revenge fantasy.
Polisse has less extreme ambitions than IB. It’s more comfortable with a naturalistic style (except for its ending, what a disappointment) but, like IB, its singular emphasis on the loyalty of CPU officers and the emotional burden that comes with their job holds the film together, makes it a much more meaningful film about life than any BEEF.