The third feature-length film from writer-director-actress (and all-round French Goddess) Maïwenn le Besco, Polisse has widely been regarded as her best yet, deservedly sweeping the Jury Prix at Cannes 2011.

Following the professional and private lives of the officers of the Parisian police force’s Child Protection Unit, Polisse grapples with controversial subject matter and is by no means going to be to everyones’ taste. Expect child abuse, incest, rape and more, and it’s all the more harrowing for the fact that events are based on actual cases. That said, the treatment of such material is remarkably sensitive, and intricately incorporates some humour; the only respite for the many protagonists portrayed, each of whom face a gruelling day-to-day and deteriorating private lives. A character-driven ensemble piece that navigates through every emotional response conceivable, Polisse ought to come with a disclaimer as well as a recommendations.

Polisse was conceived after Maïwenn caught a TV documentary about the CPU and became immediately fascinated with the lives of the people on screen. She was eventually granted the opportunity to follow the activities of various groups and her sponge-like absorption of the cases she witnessed formed the basis of the script, which she wrote in partnership with Emmanuelle Bercot, no part of which is entirely fictional. Her fly-on the wall research process is reflected within the narrative, Maïwenn featuring as Melissa, the reserved photographer assigned to document the unit’s activities on behalf of the Ministry of the Interior. Initially hovering in the background, Melissa becomes increasingly embroiled in the co-workers’ relationships, before embarking on a love affair with Fred, the impassioned but tough detective at the heart and soul of the gang, played brilliantly by French rapper Joeystarr. If the pair form a somewhat unconvincing match, the storyline at least provides one coherent narrative strand amongst what would otherwise be a series of loose threads.

If one had to criticise Polisse, it would probably have to be for its disorganised structure, which sees case after case interwoven with episodic glimpses into the officers’ private relationships and their personal dramas. Demarcated by jarring cross-cuts, events at times feel disjointed, tiring, or just plain confusing. Yet, if it feels as though Polisse lacks form and direction for the first half, by the second half of the film you doubtlessly won’t care. Although a lengthy 127 minutes, the film’s pace will sustain your attention, helped by an immersive use of close-ups and subtly unsteady, documentary-like camera work.

The drawn-out form and run time can also be excused on the basis that they allow for a comprehensive study. One leaves a viewing of Polisse feeling that every relevant issue to do with child protection was raised, a massive range of demographics was represented, and virtually every angle was covered thematically. This sheer multiplicity makes for a relatively unbiased approach, but that’s not to say Polisse isn’t brave. Issues like sexism, corruption and bureaucracy within the police force are tackled head on, controversial ideological questions regarding paedophilia are raised, and the camera never shies unnecessarily from the downright unpleasant.

Ordinarily, when one has to apologise to their cinema guest 10 minutes into a film, considers walking out of the screening multiple times and is left quite positively speechless when the title credits roll, it doesn’t bode particularly well for the review. In the instance of Polisse however, these factors only contribute to an assessment of the film as one of the best releases of the last year. Its no holds barred, gritty and visceral documentation of the officers of the CPU is at once both stomach and heart wrenching. The innocence of children resonates through such flinch-inducing statements as that which opens the film, “daddy likes to scratch my bottom”, or perhaps, “daddy loves me too much”. Meanwhile the unapologetic perpetrators of such crimes incite rage ubiquitously; on -screen amongst officers who aren’t afraid to turn violent within the confines of the interview room, off-screen amongst audience members shifting uncomfortably in their seats. It’s almost disorientating for art cinema to elicit the kind of physical responses one might expect from “lower” genres; the pathos of melodrama, the revulsion of horror. Yet Polisse’s ability to affect is vital to its overall effect, and thus it spares us nothing.

As an ensemble piece, Polisse would fall flat on its face if it wasn’t for its breathtaking cast who, each chosen on a partial basis of looking like a cop and being able to speak in a vernacular Parisian accent, virtually all excel in their naturalistic performances. It also doesn’t go without noticing that the realism of the dialogue is enhanced by the actors’ improvisation. Admittedly Maïwenn herself is a little flat alongside Joeystarr, but the likes of Marina Foïs and Karin Viard more than make up for it (keep an eye out for their take-no-prisoners cat fight towards the end of the film). Other recognisable French faces include; Frédéric Pierrot, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and Lou Doillon. Although well known domestically, it remains unfortunate that such names are unlikely to commercially compensate for the film’s gritty subject matter, or help Polisse to export internationally. Thankfully, in this regard, it at least bears the Artificial Eye watermark of quality and Cannes accolade to attest to the fact that is an accomplished, original and deeply disconcerting piece of cinema.