Maïwenn Le Besco’s Polisse includes a scene where a teenage girl tries to explain to a room full of Child Protection Unit officers why she agreed to give a blowjob to get back her phone: “It was a smart phone,” she says. “You must really love your smart phone,” one interrogator gasps, out of breath from laughing. “What would you do for a laptop, then?” If this exchange makes you uneasy, that is the point. Polisse—based on real police cases from Belleville, a working-class neighborhood in Paris, offers a frank look at the horrors of French juvenile justice, from upper-crust pedophiles to child porn stars to homeless teen pickpockets.
Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival on 13 May, the film drew applause that echoed the enthusiasm for another French drama based on true events, The Class, which won Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008. The Class (Entre les murs). But where The Class dwelled on one teacher’s efforts to teach Arab and African kids Western classical literature, Polisse telegraphs French multiculturalism with unusual brevity. Officer Fred, played by French hip hop artist Joeystarr, tries in vain to help an illiterate, homeless African woman, who gives up her son so he could have food and shelter. Another parent, a stone-faced Arab man in traditional garb, intends to give away his daughter into an arranged marriage. When he refuses to acknowledge the authority of an officer named Nora (Naidra Ayadi), she inexplicably throws a Koran at him.
Within minutes, these scenes are over and the film moves on. The speed of the action is enhanced by the officers’ fast-paced dialogue and black humor, yet neglects the point of view of the people they are trying to protect. Both The Class and Polisse form a new wave of French social, or perhaps even “socialist,” realism—well-meaning, occasionally witty, but somewhat flat-footed, a didactic view of the French underclass, a view that enjoys official approval and critical acclaim at Cannes.
In contrast, Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam, which premiered the same day at the Festival, tells an anti-didactic story about shirking official responsibility. The first 10 minutes solemnly chronicle a papal election at the Vatican, complete with a long procession of chanting cardinals assembled for a Conclave and a pious crowd waiting in the St. Peter’s Square to welcome the new pope. Then signs of levity appear: cardinals fidget, try to peek at each other’s secret ballots, and silently pray to God to save them from being chosen.
Once elected, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) seems confused. The pope is announced: “Habemus Papam” (“We have a pope”). The crowd falls silent. The cardinals wait. The pope refuses to come out to the balcony. “I can’t do this,” he blurts out and runs away. For the rest of the film, he dithers while the cardinals, the faithful, and the film’s audience await his decision. Will he accept responsibility or decline?
Habemus Papam is respectful of faith, but skeptical about the pomp and ritual of the Catholic church. It turns out that the cardinals can’t leave until the entire ceremony is completed, and out-of-town representatives are denied access to museums and donuts. Moretti appears as a psychoanalyst who is invited to ease the pope’s anxiety, but granted no privacy: the cardinals listen intently to every word of their sessions. The doctor can ask the pope none of the required questions, not about his childhood, his mother, secret desires or crises of faith. The film takes up the happy absurdity and political commentary that are familiar from other Moretti movies (Caro Diaro, Il Caimano), as the pope escapes to the streets of Rome, leaving the psychiatrist stuck with the Conclave. Out of boredom, the doctor organizes a volleyball tournament in which the suddenly delighted cardinals compete.
The papal election might be taken as a parable of the Cannes Film Festival. The cardinals’ red robes recall the red carpet covering the stairs at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, ascended by directors and stars amid camera flashes every evening before Official Competition screenings. In 1956, Francois Truffaut labeled the Cannes Official competition lineup “le cinéma de papa,” an ossified and dowdy cinematic establishment. (Three years later, his first film, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), became an official French entry at Cannes.)
Today, the Cannes Official Competition list is again known for its predictability, year after year featuring films by directors who won Cannes prizes previously. This year it includes brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Pedro Almodóvar, and Lars Von Trier. Moretti, too, has competed at Cannes six times and won prizes twice. It’s comforting to play hooky from this familiar brilliance and see edgy films in Un Certain Regard category, including, this year, Arirang, where South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk literally converses with his own shadow.
Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope)