By Malcolm Maclachlan
Many years at the long-running Sacramento French Film Festival, the emphasis has been on the kinds of light but raunchy rom-coms the French are known for. This year, the overall program seemed a bit more serious and dark—especially the two films I was able to take in.
Both are the types of dramas familiar to most audience. “Polisse” is a police procedural, “Rebellion” a tense hostage standoff. But both are well-made films depicting worlds just different enough from our own to knock your frame of reference slightly askew.
Watching “Polisse,” I was reminded of the recent brilliant recent Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf, “The Cult of Smartness: How Meritocracy Is Failing America.” The title is deceptive; Friedersdorf’s describes a false meritocracy, which is more concerned with the things we’re using as a proxy for smartness: degrees, certifications, licenses, all of which serve as barriers to competition.
You can see this in our cop shows, which these days seem obsessed with knowledge and professionalism, with even the outbursts timed and premeditated. Real cops and CSI pros complain that juries judge them, unfairly, in comparison to these shows.
In “Polisse,” no one is obsessed with looking professional all the time. While the subject is a sex crimes unit, at times you might feel like you’re watching an episode of “CSI Paris: Special Bickering Unit.” But after awhile, this starts to seem like a feature, not a bug. Take a scene where a trio of investigators interviews a teenage girl who agrees to give several guys blowjobs in order to get her smart phone back. One starts to lecture her to not do that sort of thing, but soon they dissolve into giggles and cruel jokes. In the U.S., this might get people fired. But you could make a case that derision can be a far better teacher than lecturing—a point emphasized later when another teenage girl deftly parries all attempts to lecture her about her out-of-control sex life.
You also might get the sense, shared by these cops, that everyone is a sexual predator or deviant of some kind. It adds to the claustrophobia of the film. Paris is a cramped and crowded place, a cold wet pressure cooker. The members of the unit seem to have few outside friends. The work, social and sexual lives they share together blend into a single messy, complex and very human whole. In the end, it’s an imperfect film, yet engrossing in a way that American cop dramas, with their professionalized distance, rarely are.
“Rebellion,” meanwhile, may be more familiar in many ways, a colder procedural with a recognizable hyper-professional at the center. Like “Polisse,” the director also plays a central character, Captain Legorjus, a hostage negotiator who finds himself trapped between French presidential politics and a sympathetically portrayed native uprising. The true story setting is 1988 in the Pacific islands of New Calendonia, a place which remains French territory to this day but could hardly be farther from France while still being on the planet.
Why does France even want this place? The given reason is a nickel mine, a mineral needed in all sorts of electronics that the natives can’t afford to own. But as the camera lovingly sweeps over the wide open spaces of the land these natives know as Kanaka, the endless palm trees and beaches and reefs, you get reminded of another likely reason: France is cold, dark and crowded (see above). In glimpses, we see French people creating a version of home with outdoor cafes where you’re comfortable in sandals and short sleeves. It also looks quite a bit like Hawaii, a comparison that is arguably far more than cosmetic.
Legorjus—like most of the characters, a real person—isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes, though also shows an extraordinary ability to correct them. Eventually, he finds himself stuck between a president who wants to look hawkish for the voters and Alphonse Dianou, the native leader who unfortunately operates on native time, and does not realize how quickly things can change once the hawks decide violence is the goal, not just a means.
In the end, it’s a lost-in-translation story. That translator, culturally and linguistically, is Legorjus. But he’s trying to save actual lives while the people on either end of this game of telephone are focused on far more abstract goals. But it also asks the question of how anyone can claim that these windswept beaches are France. While American films have repeatedly taken on the human damage caused by our own recent misadventures, I don’t know of any that so directly take on the premise behind them.