NEW YORK — Even for a fly-on-the-wall observer, the child protection division of a police squad is not for the faint of heart. Just ask the single-named French writer-director-actress Maïwenn. As part of the research for her third feature film, “Polisse,” which captured the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year and opens on Friday, Maïwenn spent a psychically grueling several months embedded with the detectives in the Paris Child Protection Unit. Every day, the officers grapple with cases of child abuse and pedophilia.
Maïwenn, who dropped her surname, Le Besco, not only got a first-hand glimpse of the emotional wringer endured by detectives, but she also witnessed the toll that those cases exact on the officers’ personal lives — an effect she experienced up close.
“When I would come home to my children at night, I would find them kind of difficult and capricious. And I saw them as being very lucky,” says Maïwenn, curled up on a couch in a Manhattan hotel suite. “All of a sudden, my own children’s problems seemed so futile and small compared to the problems experienced by the kids who I saw during the day.”
To cope, Maïwenn insulated herself when she was away from the CPU “internship.”
“I couldn’t be with or talk to my friends because I was so absorbed by what I was seeing. I would come home, and I was so drained that I would just watch stupid stuff on the television,” says Maïwenn, using a mix of English and her native French, spoken through a translator. “But I think that was indispensable for me in terms of understanding what [the officers] went through to be able to nourish what I needed to help make the film.”
Best known in America for playing the blue-hued alien opera singer Diva Plavalaguna in Luc Besson’s 1997 rococo sci-fi spectacle “The Fifth Element,” Maïwenn, 36, has been in the spotlight most of her life. Well known as a child and teen actress in France, she later chronicled her personal demons — a controlling stage mother and the pressures of fame at an early age —in an acclaimed one-woman stage show, “Chick Pea.” She began a romantic relationship with Besson when she was just 15 (and he was 32) and gave birth to a daughter at 16. This provoked little controversy in France. (Besson later left her for the actress Milla Jovovich, reportedly during production on “The Fifth Element.”)
Chicly dressed in jeans and a luxe asymmetrical pullover, Maïwenn is an exotic beauty, with a broad mouth, pillowy lips, and long, wavy chestnut-and-blond locks. As the conversation unfolds, her initial prickly reticence melts into a charming and effervescent give-and-take.
“Polisse,” with its raw and gritty naturalism and bracing immediacy, eschews the formulaic tropes of TV police procedurals like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” The film racked up 13 nominations for the César, the French Oscar equivalent, and became a bona fide box office hit in France. But it divided critics at Cannes despite nabbing the Jury Prize. Some compared it favorably to the landmark HBO series “The Wire,” praising its loose episodic structure, vivid mix of characters, and cinema verité-style realism; others accused it of maudlin overacting, wild turns into melodrama, and a lack of coherent focus.
While “The Wire” explored the ways that institutional decay crushes individual initiative, “Polisse” only glances at bureaucratic degradation, largely training its lens on the emotional strain of the job and the stress that the cases put on the officers’ splintering home lives.
“Even when they don’t talk about it, you can see it on their faces and in their eyes,” Maïwenn says. “It might be the only job that has that kind of mirroring effect when you go home. And you really feel that it’s a job where it’s really a question of life or death, to even be able to deal with the responsibilities that come with it.”
Maïwenn, who plays the part of a government photographer embedded within the unit, says that all of the cases in the film were inspired by actual situations she witnessed or heard about during her time at the CPU. But none of the characters, she insists, is based on real people.
“I was inspired by their job, but not by their personalities. Sometimes you take one characteristic or quality from this person, one aspect from her, one thing from him. But I didn’t copy what I saw.”
She also says that, despite the film’s gritty, true-to-life feel, the group dynamics and situations are “romanticized” to some extent.
“In reality, there isn’t that electric sort of feel, where for instance they all go to a nightclub together,” she says. “There are also many more conflicts and a lot more rivalry than what was shown in the film — especially between women.”
In bringing the script to life on screen, Maïwenn worked hard to find the truth of each scene, sometimes using on-set improvisation — even if the script had been already developed by her and screenwriting collaborator Emmanuelle Bercot.
“She follows her instincts and lets them lead her to the truth,” says Alain Attal, the film’s producer, in a phone interview. “When she believes that she has something real in front of the camera, she goes for it, even if the shot or the cinematography is not so beautiful or the camera movement is not so poetical. The aesthetics for her are less important than finding the truth.”
Maïwenn insists that “Chick Pea” was the first artistic endeavor that truly came from her soul and it boosted her confidence. But it was her foray into filmmaking that allowed her really to spread her wings and combine her varied creative interests, from writing and photography to acting and overseeing the design.
“Before I discovered moviemaking,” she says. “I hadn’t found anything where I could kind of galvanize or meld all of the things that I wanted to do.”
Yet when she attempted to make her first short film, she struggled to find her voice and ended up with “an academic” film that left her disappointed. Not long after, she starred in Claude Lelouch’s “Les Parisiens” and “Le Courage d’Aimer,” and she saw a looser, more freewheeling approach to filmmaking, more in line with her own sensibilities.
“I had lived with Luc Besson, and he’s someone who’s very structured in the process of making a film. When he writes the screenplay, he’s very methodical,” she says. “Plus, he has a certain amount of contempt for actors. But working with Claude, I saw that there were all different kinds of ways of making movies.”
Lelouch and Besson, director of “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional,” were the key people with whom she consulted when she first began mulling over what became her confessional debut film, “Forgive Me.”
“I didn’t have a producer, and I wanted to put my own money into the film. But Luc said to me, ‘You need to immediately stop what you’re doing. You’re crazy. Nobody puts their own money into a movie.’ Luc was scared. He was protecting me. But Claude told me, ‘I think you should go for it. Cinema should be a question of life or death.’ ”
When Besson saw his ex’s first feature, in which a young pregnant woman confronts her relationship with her abusive father, he apologized. “He said, ‘I’m still thinking you’re crazy,’ ” Maïwenn recalls, with a smile, “ ‘But you have been right not to listen to me this time.’ ”