Updated: Dec 4, 2021
This month's encore presentation of French Film Festival UK continues with the second film in their virtual fff@home screenings, Night Shift (Police), which is available to watch this weekend. Originally debuting at the 70th annual Berlin International Film Festival just before the pandemic took hold last year, it featured at various festivals internationally (including FFFUK 2020), before receiving a brief cinema release in September when theatres in France were opened again. In that regard it probably fared a lot better than other 2020 releases, but it still feels as though it slipped under the radar in terms of both audience and awards recognition.
Based on Hugo Boris' 2016 novel of the same name (Police), it tells the story of three police officers - Virginie (Virginie Efira), Erik (Grégory Gadebois), and Aristide (Omar Sy) - who are tasked with transporting a detention centre refugee to the airport, so he can be sent back home. The film starts out with Virginie as our point-of-view character, as we see the challenges of juggling her role as a wife and mother to a young child, together with her role as a police officer in central Paris. She's just found out that she's pregnant to her co-worker Aristide (with whom she's been having an affair) and has arranged for an abortion the following day; but first she volunteers for a late assignment - the 'night shift' of the title - so she can avoid going home once again.
It then shifts perspective to that of Erik, a veteran police officer who operates by the book, but is slowly being worn down by the rigours of his job and an unfulfilled home-life. You see an earlier assignment he and Virginie had been given, but from his point of view, along with a glimpse behind the facade of this otherwise hardened exterior. The first act is concluded with another shift to Aristide, who is going through anxieties and trauma of his own, when he finds out about Virginie's unplanned pregnancy and her intended abortion. Each character has a reason to take on this assignment, despite not being quite aware of what they're volunteering for, but more than anything it's just so they don't have to face the issues awaiting them when they leave for the day.
As it turns out, the assignment is to transport an undocumented refugee to the airport, after a fire at the local detention centre has sent the system into chaos. Tohirov has come from the war-torn country of Tajikistan (I admit, I had to look it up) and a surreptitious peek at his accompanying file alerts Virginie to the fact his life will be in danger if he's returned. As she escorts him away from the compound, somebody mentions his appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, but if he gets on that plane then it's all over. As the three officers make the slow (and seemingly winding) trip to the airport, Virginie reads aloud from the report, which details examples of the abuse and torture he suffered.
If there was a César Award for face-acting (Le César de visage?) then Payman Maadi would surely deserve it for his portrayal of Tohirov. Despite the language barrier (he doesn't appear to speak a word of English or French), his face contorts in horror as his story is retold, while everything else is conveyed through anguished looks and pained expressions. Virginie is disturbed by what she's discovered, and what they have to do, and starts encouraging Tohirov to run before they reach the airport. Aristide soon figures out what she's up to, and pulls over so they can discuss it, which is when Erik arrives at the same conclusion. Unlike the other two, he's not convinced of Tohirov's innocence or plight, so it becomes a tense stand-off between the three as the airport looms.
All the while, as it progresses, we continue to get extra snippets and insights into the officers' personal lives, and we start to understand a little more of what is driving each of them. It's a very human portrayal of police officers, rather than the gritty crime thrillers usually associated with French policiers, which makes for compelling viewing. Perhaps that can be attributed to the touch of director, Anne Fontaine, whose work I first discovered with 2003's Nathalie, and who isn't afraid to address the deeper issues. In an interview with Richard Mowe, which appeared on the Eye For Film website, Fontaine explained how she felt inspired to adapt Boris' novel after being given a copy of the book by producer, Jean-Louis Livi.
"The strength of the emotions touched me and I imagined how it could work in cinema. The story had a strong personal arc, but also was universal in the way it dealt with the fate of the immigrant. I liked the fact that they have jobs that don’t oblige them to think, since they have to follow a clearly formulated set of rules. The female character is the one who prompts change and disrupts the routine. Her own fragility and vulnerability lead her to ask questions and reflect on the humanity of their task.
"We start with Virginie Efira’s character recounting the story from her point of view and then the standpoints of the other two officers. By the time we find them together in the police car there is familiarity and we know the problems that they each have to confront. Virginie is the one who transgresses the rules which are only concerned with taking the person in custody to the airport and nothing else. She has a difficult emotional background and as a result is a lot more sensitive to the situation and what they are about to do."
Together with co-writer, Claire Barré, she set about to craft a film around these characters and find the right people to play them. I've spoken before about my appreciation of Omar Sy - most notably in our review of Lupin Part I - and it's been an incredible year for him with that, Night Shift, and the delightful The Lost Prince (Le prince oublié) all being released. When you combine his charisma with that of Virginie Efira (whose breakout 2016 performance, In Bed With Victoria, closes out fff@home), then you have a potent and compelling basis for your film.
Saying that feels like a disservice to Grégory Gadebois, who is a regular collaborator of Fontaine's, and has the difficult task of imbuing his stoic officer with the vulnerability he needs. In terms of casting, it's as much the appropriateness of the four leads, as it is the story on which it is based, that makes this film work.
I'm not here to spoil the ending - as the questions it asks, and the journey it takes to get there, should be experienced for yourself - but if you enjoy thoughtful French dramas, and/or gritty French policiers, then you'll enjoy this hybrid feature, which borrows elements of the two to create something quite different. I found it at times to be a difficult watch, but that was only because I allowed myself to be immersed in the characters and put myself in their place. It takes a powerful film to do that, and for that reason it gains my recommendation.