Louis Mangin (Gérard Depardieu) is a Parisian police inspector, investigating a Tunisian-led drug ring, run by the three Slimane brothers. An informant names Noria (Sophie Marceau), the girlfriend of Simon, one of the three brothers. Simon's lawyer, Lambert (Richard Anconina), gets Noria off a charge – and she then steals two million francs belonging to the brothers. Noria's life is in danger, but Mangin and Lambert are both drawn to her...
Maurice Pialat was a late starter to filmmaking, having been a painter previously, but by 1985 (the year he turned sixty) he had made six feature films. Often based on autobiographical material – his own or that of his frequent collaborator and former lover Arlette Langmann – his earlier films took great pains to appear realistic, often using non-professional actors and documentary-like film techniques. Although his critical reputation was sound, his films rarely troubled the box office, often being too bleak and uncomforting for a mass audience. A partial exception was 1980's Loulou, which featured two star actors, Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert; it brought Pialat to a wider audience and was the first one of his films to have a UK cinema release. (L'enfance nue had had a TV showing on BBC2 way back in 1972, as would Passe ton bac d'abord in 1982. I saw the latter showing.)
Made after 1983's A nos amours, which had turned the then-unknown Sandrine Bonnaire into a star, Police marked a shift in Pialat's style. Based on a story by Catherine Breillat (the screenplay credits her, Sylvie Danton, Jacques Fieschi and Pialat), Police moves away from the concerns of Pialat's earlier work. It's an attempt, largely successful, at fusing the style and techniques of the six previous films with the framework of a recognisable genre, the “polar” or police film. Pialat plays fair with the plot of Police, which even so needs some close attention as he is wont to leave out inessentials. (For example, he cuts straight from Noria's being named in an interrogation to her arrest, omitting the investigation in between.) Pialat treats his subject matter with his usual scrupulous realism, from the design of the sets, to lighting that resembles natural light, to his pervasive use of a 50mm lens, the one that most approximates human vision. In this respect his methods resemble his countryman Robert Bresson, but Pialat's and Bresson's themes and concerns are very different. Another interesting comparison would be Bertrand Tavernier's later L.627, also involving a drugs cop battling an immigrant-run ring. Tavernier is essentially a humanist, though L.627 is a much darker film than most of his. Perhaps the two films are where Tavernier and Pialat's essentially darker, warts-and-all view of humanity make their closest approach.
Catherine Breillat had directed two films in the 1970s to little impact, and in 1985 she was three years away from her own breakthrough film, 36 fillette (retitled Virgin in the UK). There is some dispute as to how much of the script of Police is her work. She claims credit for the female characters being more rounded than they often are in male-written polars, but confesses she found Mangin near to impossible to write. She should also take some credit for the shades-of-grey characterisation, though this is characteristic of Pialat as well: even the characters whose sides we are meant to be on can act badly.
In the 1970s and 80s, Gérard Depardieu was one of the great screen actors in the world. Few could match him for versatility – he could do comedy and tragedy equally well – and for his prodigious work rate. By the mid-80s he was averaging five films a year, and seemed to be in every third French film that played in British cinemas at the time. Police has one of his very best performances. Mangin is a complex creation, at times both macho and insensitive, yet vulnerable as well, so driven in his occupation that he is sometimes brutal to suspects. Sophie Marceau had been in films since 1980, but this was the role that she was noticed for: Noria is a duplicitous woman but somehow Marceau manages to find the humanity in her. The last scene between Mangin and Noria is heartbreaking. Richard Anconina is effectively slimy as Lambert and, in smaller roles, Pascale Rocard and Sandrine Bonnaire are effective as, respectively, a trainee police superintendent and a hooker.
Police was one of Pialat's more successful films at the French box office. Attention does need to be paid, but it's worth sticking with...though understandably some will prefer the director's earlier, rawer, more personal work.
Released simultaneously with L'enfance nue, Police is number 77 in the Masters of Cinema series. It is released on two DVD-9s encoded for all regions.
Although it says “filmé en Panavision” in the end credits, Police is not in Scope. Instead, it's in Pialat's favoured ratio of 1.66:1 and the DVD is anamorphically enhanced. There's nothing to fault this transfer: sharp, with true colours, good shadow detail and strong blacks. Grain is natural and filmlike. Full marks.
Police was Pialat's first film with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack. I saw the film in the cinema at the time, and this DVD reflects what I heard then: mono all the way, no doubt with the appropriate Dolby noise reduction. (Woody Allen would show the same approach to his soundtracks, beginning with Alice.) As such, it's fine: dialogue is well balanced (any louder background noises, such as the coffee machine in the first scene, are intentional). Subtitles are optional: however, Eureka have done a good, idiomatic translation job.
The only extra on Disc One is an interview with Catherine Breillat (14:55), conducted by Serge Toubiana in 2003, shortly after Pialat's death. It goes into some detail on how she worked with Pialat, who was – and she's not the only person to have said this – often a hard taskmaster. Interestingly, material from rejected drafts of Police was used for her own police-themed film, Sale comme un ange (1991).
The extras continue on Disc Two, beginning with the original French trailer (2:31), in 1.66:1 anamorphic.
“Les chutes de Police” (22:32) is more than the usual collection of deleted scenes. Editor Yann Dedet is on hand to explain why they were deleted. Many of them show Mangin's children by his dead wife, who are are referred to but not seen in the finished film. Another removes a subplot involving Mangin's Yugoslav cleaner, who has been completely removed from the release version.
“Pialat: 17è jour de tournage” (17th Day of Shooting, 11:52), is an extract from a 1985 television programme, Cinéma Cinémas. This is a fly-on-the-wall video piece (in 4:3) showing the shooting of a scene in the police station, with Pialat directing Depardieu and a non-professional actress playing her real job, that of a police inspector. Pialat also shows up in the screen test of C. Galmiche, a real-life lawyer who inspired the character of Lambert. This test (3:47) is in 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.
Made in 2002, "Zoom sur Police" (34:27, presented in 4:3) is a video piece directed by Virginie Apiou which covers the making of the film. Interviewees include Catherine Breillat and one of her co-writers, Jacques Fieschi, along with members of the cast and crew – though not Pialat himself, who was alive at the time. The interviewees are frank about their director, but the pride in their work is also obvious.
Finally, there are trailers for six other Pialat films, released by or forthcoming from Masters of Cinema: L'enfance nue (2:12), Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (3:42), La gueule ouverte (2:50), Passe ton bac d'abord (2:15), A nos amours (1:24) and Sous le soleil de Satan (3:24). All are in a ratio of 1.66:1 and the first three are anamorphically enhanced.
As usual, Masters of Cinema have provided a booklet with their DVD. This contains two items. The first is a detailed essay by Dan Sallitt, which examines Pialat's filmmaking technique, in particular his use of sound and editing, his “anti-technique” to break down the falsifications of fiction. The second is “The Zebra's Stripes”, an extract from a 1985 interview of Pialat by Alain Bergala and Serge Toubiana, in which he discusses his working methods in relation to Police. Interestingly, the film was born from a failed attempt to adapt a thriller called A nos amours - no relation to Pialat's earlier film of the same title.
Five years after his death, Maurice Pialat is a director whose reputation is not as high as it should be. His films are unsparing and unconsoling, but at their best have a power few other directors' work can match. Eureka, via their Masters of Cinema line, are to be commended for releasing his work on DVD, and in a two-disc editions that are, so far, hard to fault.
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