'Drift Away' ('Albatros'): Film Review | Berlin 2021

Drift Away Still 1 - Publicity -H-2021-1614613485
Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis
A slow-burn police drama that never fully ignites.

French actor-director Xavier Beauvois' latest feature stars Jérémie Renier as a small-town gendarme whose career takes an unwanted turn.

Most cop movies — and most movies in general — spend the first reel setting up a story that usually kicks off after an “inciting incident,” to quote various screenwriting manuals, which takes place within the first ten or 15 minutes. For the rest of the film, we then watch how that incident unravels and affects the lives of all those involved.

In Xavier Beauvois’ low-key police drama Drift Away (Alabtros), the veteran French writer-director does a curious thing: He spends about an hour on exposition, introducing us to a small-town gendarme named Laurent (Jérémie Renier) as he deals with different situations on the job, then returns to a stable home life with his long-term girlfriend Marie (Marie-Julie Maille) and daughter Poulette (Madeleine Beauvois).

The set-up takes so much time that one wonders, at some point, whether this will be the whole movie — whether Beauvois simply wanted to make a well-observed, realistic-to-the-point-of-near-tedium, portrait of law and order in peaceful, picturesque Normandy. (The film was shot in and around the seaside town of Étretat, whose jagged cliffs provide a stunning backdrop for some of the action.)

Finally, and it’s a little too late, the movie (co-written by Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau and Marie-Julie Maille) truly begins when a local farmer, Julien (Geoffrey Sery), who’s been feeling the squeeze under EU regulations controlling his organic livestock, goes ballistic one day and drives off with a shotgun, posing a threat to the entire area but mostly to himself. When Laurent eventually manages to confront Julien, the results are disastrous for both of them, with the gendarme’s career suddenly in jeopardy.

Beauvois previously tackled the strain of policing in his excellent 2005 Cannes prizewinner Le Petit Lieutenant, which featured Nathalie Baye as a Paris homicide cop whose drinking problems get the better of her. Here he focuses on a man who has built his entire life around the local gendarmerie, which he lives just next door to, and who takes great pleasure in training his fellow officers (Victor Belmondo, Iris Bry) in the ways of responsible law enforcement. Laurent is very much the ideal state trooper, highly attentive to both human failings and public safety, as witnessed in a handful of incidents we see him deal with during the first hour, including a suicide, a case of child molestation and a WWII landmine that the bomb squad detonates on the beach.

The director, who gives himself a Hitchcockian cameo as a rowdy neighborhood lush, establishes enough plotlines early on for an entire TV series, with another subplot involving Laurent’s upcoming marriage to Marie. You wonder where he's headed with so much material, until the story with Julien takes center stage. But the buildup has been so long that the drama practically dissipates before it kicks into second gear.

The 15 or 20 minutes that follow, which are devoted to Laurent’s gradual downfall, are by far the film’s strongest, with Renier, who began his career as a child actor in the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse, revealing how much he’s grown into an intense and anguished screen presence. (His role in last year’s Cannes selection Slalom, where he played a ski instructor sexually involved with one of his students, was equally riveting). In those scenes Beauvois also reveals how much he can master sustained dramatic tension, notably in a single long take where we see Laurent facing a squad of no-nonsense gendarmes who’ve arrived to strip him of his badge.

And yet it’s not quite enough to give Drift Away the momentum it needs to carry things home, especially when the third act spins into something resembling All Is Lost, taking us to the far reaches of the sea yet concluding in a rather predictable manner. There are some memorable moments in this part as well, including the way cinematographer Julien Hirsch (Being 17) captures the thrall of the stormy Atlantic, underlining how powerless Laurent is in its grasp. But as a metaphor for the inner turmoil the cop experiences when off the job, it’s a bit heavy-handed without being all that revelatory.

In his better recent films, including the Monks of Tibhirine account Of Gods and Men (2010) and the femme-centered WWI-set The Guardians (2017), Beauvois managed to build drama through the gradual accumulation of details, his slow-burn narratives culminating in subtly powerful finales. Here the burn can be too slow to handle at times, as if the gas had been forever left at medium-low heat. You're ultimately left wanting more from a movie that tries to drift away from the usual policier template, even though shots are fired and bodies drop.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition) 
Production company: Les Films du Worso 
Cast: Jérémie Renier, Marie-Julie Maille, Victor Belmondo, Iris Bry, Geoffrey Sery, Olivier Pequery 
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenwriters: Xavier Beauvois, Frédérique Moreau, Marie-Julie Maille
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quaînon, Ardavan Safaee
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Yann Mégard
Costume designer: Bethsabée Dreyfus
Editors: Marie-Julie Maille, Julie Duclaux
Casting director: Karen Hottois
Sales: Pathé 

In French
115 minutes