Berlinale 2021: ‘Drift Away’ (Albatros) Review

Luigi Barraza Cárdenas reviews this Competition entry exploring morality and losing one’s self control.

Over the last decade, I have developed a (questionable) habit to access international cinema through the closest proximity to tabula rasa I can muster. There is something extremely exhilarating about leaving your expectations at the movie theatre’s door, or, in this case, at the edge of your favourite personal device (but you get my point). Not knowing becomes, in itself, part of the experience and can either enhance or destroy it. In the case of French director, Xavier Beauvois’ new feature Drift Away, it proved to be more detrimental than thrilling.

Laurent (Jérémie Renier) is an average man who enjoys a decent life. He is an established police officer (gendarme in French) at a coastal town in Normandy. He is also a dedicated family man and enjoys domesticity with his partner Marie (Marie-Julie Maille) and loving daughter Poulette (Madeleine Beauvois). Despite their relationship being long-established, Laurent believes it is about time they get married. Marie thinks it unnecessary, but he is determined to make it a special day. They all seem reasonably content. At the local Gendarmerie, he appears to be in control of his professional life, manoeuvring the ups and downs of being a small-town gendarme with confidence. His responsibilities and obligations are quite diverse; they range from navigating drunks and punks to investigating grim suicides and sexual abuse cases. In this restricted setting, it is not uncommon for Laurent to interact with familiar faces while on the job. One night, an accident drastically changes his life and eventually leads him to spiral into a severe crisis.

The original French title, ‘Albatros,’ is based on the name of a sailing boat maquette seen onscreen. It connects to the main character’s conflict and identity crisis and acts as a symbol of how Laurent has lost his way. However, I found the metaphor (and its further evolution later in the film) a bit heavy-handed for my taste. Nonetheless, it still is much more elegant than the crude English title ‘Drift Away’, which quite frankly puts no trust in the audience’s reflective capacities. Some things are best left unsaid (or in this case, untranslated).

The film is extremely patient in showcasing the triviality of duties that are undertaken by gendarmes. At some points, I felt drained by how ordinary it all seemed and I started to question my tabula rasa approach. Genuinely fearing that Drift Away was just an exercise of finding beauty in the mundane, my patience ran out before the plot kicked in. Disruption arrives too late in the daily humdrum of the small town, and herein lies my harshest criticism of the film. By the time conflict escalated, I was thoroughly exhausted by cows, paperwork, cop cars, kebab stops, and the overpowering fear that I might have to research European Union regulation to write this piece. The distribution of the film’s running time seems either underdeveloped or just plain odd. While it spends a generous amount of time exploring Laurent’s life before the catastrophic incident, the climax and resolution are disappointingly rushed.

My frustration with the film established, Drift Away is quite accomplished in other aspects. For one, the performances are all top-notch, hitting the dramatic notes with gusto. Renier manages to convey Laurent’s wide spectrum of emotions across the film while exuding a restrained magnetism. He cleverly and dextrously embraces the early composure and eventual unravelling of his character. While it is obvious that this is Renier’s film, I was completely transfixed by Maille in her supporting role: she is magnetic and affecting in her delivery, successfully inciting empathy from the audience. Drift Away is also gorgeously shot, showcasing the appeal of Normandy with immersing tracking shots and a beautiful palette of greys and oranges. The score, while restrained for most of the film, is effectively used in pivotal scenes with positive if melodramatic results.

When Laurent finally breaks, it is admittedly sad to watch. He lacks the strategies to cope with his burdens or talk about his feelings. He looks desperately for catharsis and absolution in all the wrong places. In the end, however, Marie’s conflict is much more appealing than Laurent’s. Marie is the ultimate contemporary female warrior, while Laurent embodies the most archetypal kind of ‘masculine fragility’. He is unable to process his emotions in healthy ways, resulting in a full-blown crisis that negatively impacts his family.  While I do not presume to undermine his trauma and its collateral effects, his unravelling seemed selfish and irresponsible. Perhaps too twentieth century for my taste. By the time the film reaches its predictable conclusion, I was uninterested in Laurent as a hero and begging for Marie to get her own movie. Most frustrating of all is that Drift Away could have been a dramatic tour de force if only more time was spent in the editing room.

Drift Away screened in the Berlinale Competition and does not yet have a UK release date.

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