The last most of us remember of french director Xavier Beauvois is for his 2010 film “Of Gods and Men.” While that film explored a group of ordinary men whose compassions are tested due to the Civil War, his latest work “Drift Away” (Albatros) feels like a by-the-numbers police drama until it shifts gears. While it takes its own sweet time to get to the point, this unfocused film about male identity can’t be dismissed straight away.
Set in the picturesque community of Étretat in Normandy, the film follows the life of Laurent (Jérémie Renier). He is the chief of the local police force and is someone who is dedicated to his job and to his family life. The film opens with Laurent proposing marriage to Marie (Marie-Julie Maille). The couple has been living together for 10 years and also has a little daughter named Poulette.
All seems to be going well for Laurent on the surface but small towns also come with higher crime rates. His job includes investigating serious crimes, but also makes him take care of driving drunkards home, tackling domestic and child abuse, and the extreme rise in farmer suicides due to the laws put into place by the French government. He also occasionally helps his juniors crack cases and all this diligent police work is slowly taking a toll on him.
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However, since a man is supposed to keep it together, Laurent is somehow managing his life. This is only until another depressed farmer named Julien (Geoffrey Sery) starts showing signs of esoteric behavior. As he shuts himself off and disappears, something inside Laurent is triggered. When Julien ends up defying EU regulations, Laurent’s life takes a 360-degree turn into existentialism – forming the actual crux of the narrative.
Coming to the film, Xavier Beauvois spends a lot of time setting things up. He initially puts us right into Laurent’s shoes. We travel along with him from one humdrum job to another, living his life and his daily routine as intended. There is a lot of exposition and slow-paced character foreshadowing here that seems like a fine setup for something truly sincere.
That said, the almost 1-hour odd setup is so carefully maneuvered that a casual viewer is easily misled. The point is, the setup feels like the actual film, and the expectation for something greater slowly glides away. This is especially frustrating because the next leg of the film explores some really hard-hitting truths about male identity and catharsis.
The aim here is to explore how a man intakes grief and guilt. Pretty much like Beauvois’s 2005 film “The Young Lieutenant” about a lady cop with a drinking problem, there is something about how a job not suited for one’s own identity. We see Laurent working really hard to make everything perfect for his little town and his family but eventually, his heart rests only in a boat.
Existential questions are explored in an understated and subtle manner where Laurent’s actual persona is hidden under layers of self-conditioning. There’s no way I can leave this tale untethered without drawing parallels to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s excellent poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In many ways, Laurent serves as the Mariner and Julien as the Albatros. The guilt that Laurent has to carry with him will not leave him but at least at the sea, he can find a way to forgive himself.
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The drifting away in Xavier Beauvois is about a man trying to find his rightful place. It’s about identifying what really holds you together. Herein, the storm – both at the see and in Laurent’s life serves as a sort of wake-up call for him to sit back and reconsider. However misleading the numerous subplots – including one with his marriage and a cameo involving the director himself can be, this central theme never misses from hitting the mark.
In spite of all that, there are glaring problems with “Drift Away.” Firstly, the off-hand, abrupt editing – especially in the first leg of the film doesn’t go with the flow or the pace that Beauvois has set up for his film. The subplots mentioned above never come full circle and you end up questioning their existence in the first place. However, a lot of it can still be forgiven for Jérémie Renier’s dedicated performance as Laurent. He is convincing as a hardworking policeman and also completely endearing as a man trying to recollect himself.
“Drift Away” ends predictably. We know how and why the director made the choice and while I wasn’t exactly convinced with the way Beauvois focuses his narrative or that I wanted more out of it, I know that beggars can’t be chooser, can they?