Drift Away’s opening is a three-tiered one; within not even the first five minutes, Xavier Beauvois simultaneously presents the relationship between local gendarme Laurent’s (Jérémie Renier) work and home life, while intercutting a bride and groom photoshoot morbidly interrupted by a suicide that will in no doubt be that day’s call. As if the intriguingly granular details that imply the ways in which police work encroaches on this man’s life were not enough — a gun kept in the closet, the station house literally sitting right next door — Beauvois includes a gratuitous death from the jump. Also, before Laurent begins his brief walk to work, he briskly proposes to Marie (Marie-Julie Maille), his girlfriend of ten years, with whom he also has a young daughter, Poulette (Beauvois’ own daughter, Madeleine).
The film continues to operate along these routine points of contrast, bombarding Laurent with the tiresome work he weathers daily, before ensconcing him within the atmosphere of love and care his family provides. The path the film takes to reach its climax, however, is an errant one, teasing numerous plotlines that could possibly deal the final blow to the put-together façade Renier so ably presents. The opening suicide, a case of insurance fraud, a discomfiting mention of child abuse: all of these take their visible toll, but it’s during an encounter with a young, beleaguered farmer, Julien (Geoffrey Sery), that Laurent performs his fatal blunder. Near the film’s halfway point, Julien threatens suicide with a shotgun, and in keeping with Drift Away’s heretofore established rhythm, the event appears to be yet just another issue Laurent has to deal with before moving on to the next. That is, before his attempt to debilitate Julien with a gunshot instead kills him. What follows is an ostensible descent into existential matters of responsibility and violence — which mostly consists of Renier striking pensive poses in otherwise unremarkable compositions — culminating in Laurent being ensnared in self-righteous wanderlust, abandoning everything to take to the sea.
The film’s Normandy setting and flirtations with policier tropes suggest comparisons to the festival circuit’s premier chronicler of murders in French coastal towns, Bruno Dumont. Dumont may meet pushback for the vacillating spirituality and depravity that marks his films, but Beauvois presents the negative flipside of this with Drift Away. His existentialism is merely nominal, only evinced by a grossly manipulative twist that prioritizes drama over actual human feeling. Whatever effects Drift Away managed before that point are by and large dispelled by Laurent killing Julien, which plays less like a productive end in itself than a means to get to the next act.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.