by Jordan King
Set amidst a small community on the French coastline of Normandy, actor-turned-director Xavier Beauvois’ latest feature Drift Away is an evocative if not entirely concentrated drama, one which possesses shades of the communitarian persecution commentary found in Vinterberg’s The Hunt, as well as a third act sojourn to the sea that mirrors in many ways James Marsh’s The Mercy.
Jérémie Renier stars as French gendarme Laurent. Before the title card comes up, we see a picture of domestic bliss as Laurent lovingly kisses his girlfriend of ten years Marie (co-writer, editor, and fantastic actress Marie-Julie Maille), proposing to her at long last before joining her and his daughter Poulette (Beauvois’ daughter Madeleine) in a playful ‘sandwich kiss’ which frames their little one as the centre of their world. The sharp cut to black as the title comes up is an early marker of darkness ahead, and the next scene – in which a couple’s wedding photoshoot is interrupted by a falling body – puts us on alert, offering up the first of many dark omens even as the film settles into a reasonably steady rhythm over the course of its first fifty minutes.
Taking great pains to inculcate a sense of community togetherness and ‘the ordinary everyday’, Beauvois luxuriates in trivial scenes where we see Laurent attend to drunk and disorderlies, go and get a kebab together with his work colleagues as they put the world to rights, attend a controlled explosion on the beach to clear a mine – about the most exciting event the congregated locals have experienced in a fair time, and watch his daughter’s cosy authority-praising school show. At each early juncture, we are greeted with rural domesticity at its most unchallenging and easygoing, captured in soft hues and pastoral images by DoP Julien Hirsch, and at each juncture we also may take note of the small crowd that gathers within moments of any whiff of excitement spreading through the town.
The above being said, life as a gendarme has made Laurent a man who is hard to read. He has been with Marie for a decade, had a child with her, and yet has never previously thought to marry the love of his life. Why? Maybe he was just waiting for the right moment as he flippantly quips, but then again maybe a career where death and a growing suicide rate amongst the local populace has become part of the daily grind makes planting roots hard for a man whose own grand and great-grandfathers both answered the call of the ocean before ending up shipwrecks. In the level of Renier’s restrained yet fiercely emotive eyes, a storm of emotions rages that he wethers with regimented routine. Even so, in flashes of anger such as that which falls on a motorcyclist without a helmet whom Laurent shouts ‘I’m the one who calls the parents!’ at, we realise that life serving to protect others brings no guarantee of protection for one’s own well-being.
A call out to the home of Laurent’s friend and local cow farmer Julien (Geoffrey Sery) in the middle of the night sharply flips the narrative on its head in a scene that is difficult to watch but whose outcome – foreshadowed by a very literal instance of Chekhov’s gun earlier in the film – is a foregone conclusion from the moment Laurent and his colleague arrive. As Julien repeatedly laments ‘I’m tired… I’m tired…’, the farm worker exasperated by increasing sanctions and surveillance of his practise, a shotgun raised to his own head spurs Laurent into action. He shoots Julien in the leg, intending to immobilise and disarm his troubled friend, but as he lays on the ground bleeding out, Julien’s last thoughts and Laurent’s inescapable ones will inevitably remain the same – the institution put in place to protect and save people like Laurent has killed him, taking from him even the right to choose his own fate.
As Laurent clams up, Renier physically embodying grief and its way of opening the Earth up beneath even the most grounded of people and swallowing them whole extraordinarily, his fiancée and daughter are left to witness the scorn and outrage of the community. ‘Gendarme meurtrier’ – Gendarme murderer – is daubed on a cattle shed Marie and her daughter drive past one morning, ‘the kids at school say daddy killed a man’ Poulette mutters over dinner one night. When Laurent does return to the familial home, the silences are painfully drawn out, and where once he existed in scenes of familial bliss, we now see a broken man returning to a broken family who don’t blame him for what has happened but who also have no idea what to do or say. In response to this inability to escape his demons or reconcile himself to the damage he has done to his family and his community, Laurent takes leave and sets sail, following the example of his grandfather and great-grandfather before him – ‘the sea will console him’ his mother reassures Marie.
Whilst Beauvois executes a three-act narrative that ends on a hopeful note, there is a notable drop-off in sense of directive or direction after the initial shock of Laurent’s actions has worn off. By having his protagonist head out to sea, leaving his family to fear the worst whilst only exacerbating the instability he has wrought upon them and their home, Beauvois leaves himself with no conceivable way of satisfactorily tying up the plot’s many loose ends or providing any sense of earned closure to his tale of grief and its ties to the ocean’s call. What we are left with then is a handsomely shot film that meditates for the most part well on its central themes. Renier takes these slightly choppy parts however and, as great actors do, elevates the piece entirely, putting in the kind of performance that defines a career.
Drift Away played as part of Berlinale