Drift Away review – fatal error leaves cop all at sea

Peter Bradshaw
·3-min read

Xavier Beauvois is the actor-turned-director whose Of Gods and Men in 2010 is one of the great French movies of the 21st century; he also has the honour of a cameo, as himself, in the final series of the Netflix comedy Call My Agent. His new film is really intriguing, a film deeply rooted in a close-knit community, with excellent performances, a sophisticated control of narrative tempo and – at least initially – a tragic force that could almost be compared with Elia Kazan. Yet I have to say that this power is dissipated by a disappointing ending in which the film, as its English title warns us, drifts away.

Jérémie Renier plays Laurent, a small-town cop in Normandy in northern France, devoted to his partner, Marie, played by Marie-Julie Maille – Beauvois’s own partner and also as often with his work, the film’s editor and co-writer. Together, Beauvois and Maille control of the film’s shape, particularly in the beginning, with its scene-by-scene exposition of the local community. Laurent is also a devoted dad to his infant daughter, Poulette, played by Madeleine Beauvois. Their happy family is made even more blissful when Laurent asks Marie to marry him.

At work, Laurent has great colleagues who always have his back: Quentin (Victor Belmondo) and Carole (Iris Bry). He is an excellent officer, dedicated to the local community, to whom we are expertly and indirectly introduced, and at first it seems that a certain farmer doesn’t seem necessarily more important than anyone else: this is Julien (Geoffrey Sery), morose and angry, confiding in Laurent about his money worries, overwork and the cripplingly expensive new demands made of him by the hygiene inspectors, the DDPP (or Departmental Directorate of Population Protection).

But Julien emerges as someone more and more worrying. Aggressive and despairing, he attacks an inspector and drives off with his shotgun. Finally, Laurent confronts Julien in his farmyard: Julien appears to turn his gun on himself. Laurent draws his own sidearm. Can he perhaps immobilise Julien with a well-aimed non-fatal shot before he kills himself? But wait – does Julien, in fact, intend to kill himself? In the heat of the moment, a terrible misjudgement is made.

One of the film’s most extraordinary and shocking, if perhaps slightly contrived scenes comes at the beginning: a couple are having wedding photographs taken on the picturesque beaches when a person who has killed themsef lands next to them on the shingle. Beauvois is showing us a bizarre and surreal ill-omen for Laurent personally, as an officer who himself is about to be married and whose destiny intersects with someone who may be about to take his own life.

The film is at its very best in simply and unselfconsciously showing the group of people of which Laurent and Marie are a part and also the couple’s contented life. It also does something that is never easy: showing us very happy marital sex. And when the tragedy overtakes Laurent, his interrogation scenes are powerful, as the full seriousness of the situation incises new lines and wrinkles on his face.

But then … well, Laurent resolves to make his escape. The sea is calling him, along with a strange and melancholy sense of fatalism. He starts to resemble the notorious real-life British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, whose life on the ocean wave got so out of control. Where are we going with this? Worryingly, the film takes us away from where it had been so strong: dry land; it is powerful when densely embedded with people and problems. There is no very satisfying resolution to the situation. Yet this doesn’t take away from the dignity and potency of Renier’s performance.