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Gravity of Law

Guy Ferrandis

Drift Away (2021)

This is a movie for adults. In America death and suffering are for other people, and humans will go to any length, make any excuse, twist themselves into any knots in order to avoid it. If it’s inescapable, it’s treated with either self-pity or sarcasm, but either method is a refusal to accept it. But “Drift Away” is a French film that knows that suffering is all around and the best way to handle it is to confront it honestly. The French title of the movie, “Albatros,” is after a model ship Laurent (Jérémie Renier) is gifted from his mother. His family have lived on the Normandy coast for generations. Laurent can’t afford his own boat, but his friend Olivier (Alexandre Lefrancois) can, and they often go fishing. Laurent has a partner, Marie (Marie-Julie Maille, the director’s wife, who also co-wrote the screenplay and co-edited the film), who works in the town hall, and together they have a daughter named Lucie, but who everyone calls Poulette (Madeleine Beauvois, the director’s daughter). The movie opens with Laurent proposing marriage, in front of Poulette, on Marie’s birthday; she accepts, but without enthusiasm. She is happy with the status quo, and she would rather their money go for the house they are renovating together.

Laurent goes to work – he’s one of the senior local police, and his family lives in stock housing provided by the town – and time passes in the ordinary way. A man leaps to his death from the cliffs, frightening a bride and groom having their photos taken on the rocky beach below. The team examines the body and determine he’s a tourist from Paris. Back at the station, a doctor makes a statutory report of child abuse, and there are many discussions between Pierre (Maréchal des Logis Olivier Pequery), Quentin (Victor Belmondo), Carole (Iris Bry) and Laurent about the least damaging way to intervene. They tease Laurent about his vaping. A dreadlocked farmer named Julien (Geoffroy Sery) must complete a report about some stolen goods, and while he’s there complains at some length about the financial trouble he’s in. An unexploded WWII bomb is discovered on the beach and impatient dog walkers must be evacuated so it can be destroyed. Laurent’s request for healthy food is overruled, so he goes with Quentin and Carole to get kebabs for dinner.

Later some health inspectors come to check on Julien’s cows, and things get so out of hand the police must come. Despite Laurent’s best efforts, Julien hits one of the inspectors with his car; it’s not until later that his sister Severine (Stéphanie Brabant) realizes Julien has also taken the gun. This sets off a chain of events that ends up back in Julien’s farmyard, where something awful happens, although it is more correct to say that Laurent does something awful. In the aftermath, Mr. Renier conveys the full depth of Laurent’s shock just by the look in his eyes. He is a man sinking into a bottomless void. He is collapsed. He can’t talk. He is shouted at by some other officers and then led away under arrest. He is undone. But nothing is over, not even close.

Mr. Renier has worked for decades in Belgian and French cinema, mainly as a variety of low-life creeps, deadbeat dads and manipulative charmers, and he must have leapt at the chance writer-director Xavier Beauvois offered of playing a stand-up guy. Laurent is a good man, and everyone knows it; but that doesn’t change the fact of what happened – what he did – and the misery of the aftermath. Right from the start, with the matter-of-fact shots by Julien Hirsch of the shattered body of the beach, Mr. Beauvois shows us everyday upsetting things and expects us to understand and react appropriately. Even little Poulette listens solemnly when Marie has to explain a few unpleasant truths; age eight she already knows her feelings don’t always come first. This maturity has almost vanished from American filmmaking and is a welcome change.

But the movie follows Laurent so closely we lose out on getting to know Marie, who as shown here has no friends or family of her own, only Laurent’s family and Laurent’s colleagues. It’s a peculiar mistake made by Mr. Beauvois, Ms. Maille and Frédérique Moreau in their script, isolating Marie with only Poulette to talk to. Doesn’t everyone need a best friend? The unstinting support offered to Laurent could have been shared around.

But the heart of the movie is the conversation between Carole, Quentin and Laurent as they drive across the dark countryside into town for food. Carole mentions she doesn’t want children, because climate change has progressed so far the earth only has 10 years left. Laurent is surprised, but Quentin agrees it’s hopeless, there is no future for anyone. Laurent reminds them all of Poulette and that he has to have hope for the future, for her, and a small silence falls. Is it foolish to step forward into every day hoping better things are to come? Especially when you know all the terrible things that have happened – that you have done? “Drift Away’s” answer to these questions is hard-earned, and very moving, especially if you know the metaphor of the albatross and the sea. It’s not for kids.


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