At what point does representation become exploitation? Classifying the inherent ethical value of art is a perilous pursuit. As the response to Bill Henson’s photography or the calls to ban Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film reveal, this is particularly so when the work involves children. Recently released without controversy in this country, Polisse (dir. Maïwenn), a film detailing the inner workings of a Parisian Child Protection Unit (CPU), nonetheless provokes topical questions about the line separating empathy from exploitation.

Reportedly based on actual cases and filmed with a documentary-like sensibility, Polisse follows the lives of those officers tasked with investigating crimes committed against children. One of the distinguishing features of Polisse is its open narrative structure, marked by a procession of unrelated cases that, for the most part, remain unresolved. It’s this aspect of the film, coupled with the ensemble cast, that has prompted many critics to draw comparisons between Polisse and the television series The Wire. However, given the often sexual nature of the crimes contained within the film (as opposed to The Wire’s focus on drugs) it may be more productive to consider the film in light of another television serial.

In an article for Jezebel examining the representation of sexual violence within Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Katy Kelleher writes that:

There is something slightly off about using stories of assault for entertainment value, even if the larger narrative is one of justice and vindication. Which begs the question: is it possible to build a television show around the greater issue of sexual assault without exploiting the real-life victims or commodifying rape?

Putting aside the differing cultural and industrial contexts that produced Polisse and Law & Order: SVU, the question that Kelleher poses remains relevant to both. Does Polisse exploit its victims for the sake of entertainment? I don’t believe so. The key distinction between Polisse and programs like SVU is the extent to which the presentation of sexual crime encourages a voyeuristic gaze. Unlike SVU, which occasionally depicts acts of sexual assault, and more frequently contains scenes in which the victims recount their experiences in detail, Polisse avoids such representations. The crimes in Polisse are never shown on-screen and are only ever referred to in brief, general statements within interviews with victims or suspected perpetrators. By refusing to narrativise incidents of sexual assault in this way, the film works to de-sensationalise rape as an object for dramatic consumption.

In diverting attention from the acts of abuse to the individuals affected by crime, the representational strategy adopted by Polisse actively promotes an identification with both the victims of crime and the members of the CPU. This approach is particularly evident in one scene, in which a teenager is shown cradling a stillborn baby to which she has just given birth: the result of a rape. Focusing on the young woman, whose reaction to the deceased infant is marked by a mixture of tenderness and repulsion, the film provides a stark glimpse of the traumatic aftermath of sexual violence. The potential exploitation of grief in this scene, however, is undermined by the camera’s unbroken and empathetic identification with the victim.

However, not all of the cases in Polisse are presented in such an unflinching fashion. In her review of the film for Sight & Sound, Catherine Wheatley criticised Polisse for its ‘schizophrenic tone’, referring to a scene in which a young girl confesses to having performed oral sex in order to retrieve her stolen phone, an admission that is met with laughter by members of the CPU. For Wheatley, ‘this is not fond, gentle teasing but a hard and callous response that comes at the expense of a child who knows no better’. She concludes that:

Wittingly or not, Maiwenn uses the serious dramatic elements gleaned from her research for cheap laughs and fast judgements from which no real understanding can be gained. The subject matter is too immense to be compromised by her admixture of triviality and self-importance.

While I concur with Wheatley’s assessment of the officers’ response in this scene as callous, her alignment of the audience with those ‘cheap laughs’ is questionable given the presentation of the scene. Rather than simply exploiting the victim or her actions for the purposes of humour, the editing, which cuts between shots of the bemused CPU staff and the dismayed face of the young girl provides a cross-identification that problematises any simplistic reading of the scene. The result is a discomforting moment that highlights an institutional failure in providing a duty of care, not only for the victims of crime but also those charged with their support. Taken not in isolation but as a response to the cumulative vocational traumas from which they’re granted little respite, the humour in this scene (as inappropriate as it is) actually offers a very real understanding of the officers’ workplace.

It’s unfortunate, then, that for all its avoidance of sensational depictions of sexual violence that Polisse should conclude with an uncharacteristically stylised (slow motion) tragedy involving one of the CPU officers. Ultimately, Maïwenn spares the children from the camera’s exploitative gaze but in the case of this one particular individual, the resolution seems far more befitting an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

Josh Nelson is a Killings columnist, freelance academic, writer and broadcaster. He also runs the film criticism website Philmology.