Mononymous French filmmaker Maïwenn is one of Europe’s most promising directors thanks to her recent effort Polisse; a sprawling, ensemble drama about the men and women of France’s Child Protection Unit, and the endless stream of depressing cases they face each day. She’s perhaps best known for her work in front of the camera; as baby-blue alien Diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element (helmed by her then-husband Luc Besson), and also as the tormented, blood-soaked victim in Alexandre Aja‘s High Tension. Maïwenn looks a sight different in Polisse, in which she stars as a photojournalist who falls for the CPU’s most volatile member (Joeystarr).
I sat down with Maïwenn at the Sydney Film Festival to talk about her experiences with the real-life Child Protection Unit in France, the movie’s gallows humour, and casting children for the more extreme sequences. Though there was a slight language barrier – an interpreter was close by throughout the interview – she spoke directly about her picture, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and has since caused a storm the world over.
Polisse arrives in Australian cinemas June 28, 2012. This interview was originally published during the film’s run at the Sydney Film Festival.
SM: When you were growing up, were there any particular films that inspired you to want to get into acting or directing?
M: Acting or directing?
SM: Either or.
M: It’s not the same.
SM: Acting first.
M: Uh, like teenagers movies. But my job is more focused on directing now.
SM: So tell me about movies that inspired you to get into directing. Were there any films that made you want to get behind the camera?
M: Yeah, many Ken Loach movies. Maurice Pialat’s movies. But it depends on the movie that I have in my mind. My inspiration can change direction.
SM: Tell me about the first seed of an idea for Polisse.
M: I’d seen a documentary on TV, and I fell in love with the subject. And I tried to reach them [the Child Protection Unit] and made an internship.
SM: When you first had the idea for the film, were you ever compelled to make it about one central character; one central case. Or did you always want it to be about an ensemble?
M: I always wanted it to be an ensemble…. Actually no. Maybe I had this idea to treat many cases after the internship. I don’t really remember. But I knew before the internship that I was going to act in it; that I was going to put a love story in it; that I wanted to provoke culture shock between two characters. So I knew many ingredients even before the internship; before the writing process.
SM: Knowing that you had some ingredients before the internship and the writing process, I’m curious: what kind of preconceptions did you have about the Child Protection Unit that were maybe dispelled once you spent time with them?
M: I didn’t have any idea about it before the internship. I was focused on staying virgin about it. Doing the internship, I was more focused on the emotion from the cops, rather than the emotions from the victims or the kids. It’s not a movie about the kids; it’s a movie about being a cop with the kids.
SM: As we can see in the movie, there are some pretty volatile situations…
SM: Very hard-going, very intense.
M: For the cops?
SM: For the cops, absolutely.
SM: Tell me about integrating with them. Did you have any difficulties there?
M: With the kids?
SM: With the police.
M: Well, I think it’s normal to have difficulties with the police. They are not here to make you laugh. They have to be focused on their work, and they have lots of demand from the media, so it’s normal what I’ve been through. It’s completely normal.
SM: The performances from the kids are pretty astounding. There are times when you forget that it’s a fictional film, and it feels like a documentary. What was the casting process like, as well as getting them to perform in these high-intensity scenarios?
M: I’d done a big casting-call before choosing them, in the sense that I was looking for kids that were able to work with me. I wanted to find kids that would be malleable. And I’ve seen many kids that were too comfortable in front of me and in front of the camera. They were already pretending to be kids. All those kids were not interesting for me. When I chose the kids, I wanted to be sure they knew what the movie was about, and I wanted to be sure the parents were confident with me. I wanted to be confident with them too. And I wanted to also be sure that the kids were not pushed by the parents to be in the movie, which is usually – unfortunately – the case. When I was sure the kids were here for the good reason, not because of the parents, I asked them why they wanted to make this movie; with me, and with the subject. All of them that I chose answered, ‘Because it’s coming from a true story.’ So even if they were so small and not aware of misery in the world, they were already politically involved.
SM: There’s a good sense of humour in the film. Not throughout the whole movie, but certainly at times. Was there a concern about striking the right tone?
M: Can you…?
SM: Finding the right balance between the disturbing drama and the light-hearted moments.
SM: First of all, this is the reality when you go and spend time with the Child Protection Unit. After three days, I was even, in a sense, the same kind of humour with them. I figured out that they were obliged to have this humour to keep straight. This humour is not just a humour; it’s a philosophy to stay alive and avoid the misery coming through to their private life. I really knew that I had to transmit this humour in the movie, so I pushed this idea further to make it really funny and make it even uncomfortable for the audience. The reality is not as uncomfortable as in the movie. They could laugh, but just inside of them; you never saw them laughing as you see them in my movie. But the fiction sometimes has to be more or less than the reality. Depends on the idea of what you’re choosing. Some of the cases, I didn’t want to put them in the movie because they were too much. It was like, ‘No, no, no; it is not possible.’ I really think that the reality is a bad script, in the sense that you have to adjust the reality to give another reality in the movie.
SM: On that note, in the editing process, were there any storylines that you did like but didn’t work in the context of the whole film?
M: Yes, many times. Many things. It didn’t have the good rhythm; it didn’t have the good place; it didn’t have the good humour. Yeah.
SM: Would you ever release a director’s cut on DVD?
M: Oh yes, they are on the DVD.
SM: How has it been taking the film out of Europe, and to Australia, and around the world? What has that experience been like?
M: Yeah, it is really exciting to experience the whole reaction all over the world, which I can say now after a few countries that [the CPUs] are almost all the same. I mean they have a good relationship with the journalists.
SM: You mentioned earlier that you are moving more towards directing. Are you still interested in acting in films you haven’t written or directed?
M: Yes, I did a movie for a director last summer and I really liked it.
SM: And what about your next project? Have you lined that up yet?
M: I don’t know.
Polisse arrives in Australian cinemas June 28, 2012.