Monday, April 27, 2009


The title of Maurice Pialat's Police announces itself as a certain kind of genre picture, a thriller, a policier, and for at least part of its length it seems to be fulfilling the conventions of its genre. It opens with the police detective Louis Mangin (Gérard Depardieu) getting turned on to a drug trafficking ring by the small-time crook Claude (Bentahar Meaachou), who has basically no choice but to turn informant or else get sent to jail himself. Mangin then pulls in the drug dealer Simon (Jonathan Leïna) and his girl Noria (Sophie Marceau), even though he has no more evidence on them than Claude's testimony, and a search of their apartment yields nothing. This drags into play a whole underground network of crooks and dealers and pimps and killers with their clandestine meetings and dirty deeds, all of them fighting and killing each other over the drugs and money being passed around within their insular, scary world. This is the set-up for a gritty crime drama, and its plot does indeed mix in plenty of guns, mysterious caches of money, night-time shootings and stabbings, and drugs hidden away in secret locations. And yet the film more or less uses these events and genre conventions as a background to its real concern, which is the interaction of its ever-widening cast of characters, its realist concern for the lives of people living on the edge of legality and crime in various ways. In the end, the term "crime film" is not its genre but its setting, its milieu. It's about people living life as though it was a crime film, people hiding out in grimy apartments and low-life bars, people with shifty eyes for whom lying is as natural as breathing. It's also about the marginalized status of Arab immigrants within French society, and the way that these Tunisian gangs form an entire alternative culture within their host country.

Many of these concerns doubtless originated with the film's script, conceived and co-written by the filmmaker Catherine Breillat, but it's Pialat's characteristic loose, improvisational style that really seems to drive the film. After the initial burst of crime drama clichés, the story settles down into an eventless pace, destabilizing genre expectations and blurring the usually rigid lines delineating hero from villain in these kinds of stories. There is no solid ground here, no definitive moral compass. Everyone is corrupt to one degree or another, and the cops are nearly as bad as the criminals, or maybe even worse. Mangin and his buddies certainly don't play by the rules. They're brutal and nasty and tend to presume guilt in everyone they see; sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but their methods are draconian and cruel. Mangin especially is violent and contemptuous of procedure. He beats on prisoners and even slaps Noria around. In the absence of actual evidence, he tries to bully suspects into confessing their crimes. At one point, the cops bring in a guy suspected of pulling a robbery at a jewelry store. But when the old lady from the shop not only fails to identify him, but specifically points him out as the one guy in the line-up who couldn't be the robber, the cops don't give up or set him free. Instead, they subject him to a battery of brutal interviews, berating him with questions and insisting that he's been identified as the robber, finally beating his head against a desk when he refuses to say he did it (he didn't, it seems).

Further blurring the line between good guys and bad guys is Lambert (Richard Anconina), a sleazy, amoral defense attorney who represents various underworld figures and proudly announces that he's not one of those lawyers who needs to believe in his clients' innocence to defend them: "I know all my clients are guilty!" Oddly enough, he's good friends with Mangin and frequently meets with his buddy after hours to compare notes or engage in some shady, semi-legal business together — like setting up a local pimp for some jail time because Lambert has his eye on the pimp's main girl Lydie (Sandrine Bonnaire). At the same time, Lambert doesn't want to do this forever; his ultimate career goal is to become a public prosecutor. It's not an unrealistic idea, either, because there's already so much fluidity between good and bad in this world: none of the good guys can escape corruption, just as none of the bad guys are without their redeeming qualities. Even among the Tunisian gangsters, there is a sense of familial loyalty and a code of honor that ties them together; Simon's bumbling, oafish brothers Maxime (Abdel Kader Touati) and Jean (Jamil Bouarada) are pretty rotten and stupid, but they love their brother and their mom, who seems to be in on their crime ring in some amorphous way.

As Pialat and Breillat dig deeper and deeper into this milieu, the film becomes less and less concerned with its ostensible thriller plot. Moreover, it starts to erase the distinctions between cop and criminal that set everything in motion to begin with. At some point around halfway through the film, the script elliptically skips over at least a few weeks without warning, and throws cops and criminals together in unpredictable arrangements. Noria has been released from jail thanks to Lambert's defense, though Simon has remained behind bars on equally flimsy evidence. But Mangin seems unconcerned, and the film's turning point comes during a night out on the town for dinner and dancing, with Lambert and Mangin being joined my Noria, Lydie and one of Mangin's colleagues, Marie (Pascale Rocard). The plot seems to have been forgotten, and Mangin, who is as vicious as a pit bull when he gets a suspect in front of him, couldn't care less if his detainees are released without charges later. His amorality extends even to his work ethic; he sees policework as just something to do, a job rather than a calling, and he disowns responsibility the minute his part in the process is complete.

This is why Mangin can spend the night out with one of his former suspects, and even start to fall for her. The thrust of the film at this point becomes less about its crimes or suspense plotting than about the complicated relationships that develop between the cops, criminals and lawyers. The incestuous interweaving of the criminal elements with their pursuers results in various romantic and sexual liaisons forming and dissolving. These people are desperate for some kind of connection, even if it's just empty sex, and this is especially true of the lonely widower Mangin, who over the course of the film shifts subtly from a nasty, brutish jerk into a more complicated, even sympathetic character. It helps that Depardieu embodies both aspects of this character, with his hulking body and slumped posture, his darting eyes half-hidden beneath a shaggy mop of hair. He can be intimidating and also disarmingly gentle, almost like a shy little boy trapped in an oversize body. Marceau's Noria has virtually the opposite character arc, her initial blurry-eyed victim morphing gradually into a cold and habitually dishonest femme fatale, dropping lies without blinking. Marceau sells the transition well, and she seems especially conscious of how her character's deceit and coolness play off of her doe-eyed, cherubic beauty. But the way the film's second half treats the arcs of Noria and Mangin is somewhat disheartening and misogynist, rehabilitating the nasty, corrupt cop into a sensitive, lonely guy while his victim becomes a manipulative ice princess, cynically using men to dig her out of the trouble she's gotten into.

Still, it's to Pialat's credit that Police is ultimately more complicated than a surface description of its central relationship would suggest. Pialat's camera darts around, letting the relationships between the characters define themselves as their bodies interact with each other and with the camera's ragged motion. He cuts in for closeups, squashing faces together in cramped compositions, contrasting the lumpen Depardieu against the smooth, curving lines of Marceau or Bonnaire or Rocard. The camera frequently readjusts in small, barely noticeable ways, jigging slightly to the left, zooming in or out, as though refining the relationships within each frame, highlighting or eliding certain details through its minute adjustments. The camera's rough movements — it seems to be settling on its framings only after much trial-and-error experimentation — complements the raw, naturalistic acting of the cast. As always, Pialat's work seems to be tapping into deep, primal emotions, increasingly letting the film's genre conceits fade away into the background as the director focuses his camera with glaring intensity on the nastiness and ugliness of these people who are searching for something better even as they, almost unconsciously, hurt and betray one another. And the real betrayals here are not the noirish double-crosses involving bags of money and drugs — these plots are resolved, counter to expectations, with conversation and minimal bloodshed — but the painful, emotional betrayals of love and desire and human connections. This is a police drama where knife or gunshot wounds are much easier to deal with than the deeper emotional and psychological scars hidden within.


Joel Bocko said...

Ed, I put up a post recently on To Kill a Mockingbird which you may or may not have seen, but just today in the comments section I brought up Peter Wollen's distinction between "charismatic authority" and "legal-rational authority" in Ford's movie, an observation which seems to crystallize some ambivalence I had about Atticus Finch vs. Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the matter - either aesthetically or ethically.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, Danny. It's great to hear that this film has had such a far-ranging impact. It's definitely a powerful experience, as are pretty much all of Pialat's films.