Berlinale 2021: “Drift Away” is a riveting but frustrating police thriller

Drift Away (Albatros) Drift Away (Albatros)

Xavier Beauvois’ procedural offers intriguing day-in-the-life police work, despite an abrupt late-film shift into melodrama.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.)

Drift Away (Albatros), the eighth film from French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, contains such abrupt shifts in focus and tone that one’s degree of enjoyment towards it will depend largely on rolling with the punches. 

For most of the time, it’s a police procedural following a cop going about his duties and when it sticks to that, it’s undeniably compelling in a low-key way. Towards the end, it switches gears to become an almost completely different film and a less interesting one to boot, though even this section is rescued from complete pointlessness by the impressive central performance from Jeremie Renier as Laurent, a police officer in a small seashore town. 

For virtually the entire first hour, we observe Laurent as he goes about his duties. Although there are some moments of excitement here and there—a newlywed couple posing for photos on the beach have their seemingly perfect tableau abruptly shattered by a man committing suicide—most of what we see is pretty much run-of-the-mill small-town policing. This ranges from advising another cop on how to approach the case of a local man suspected of sexually abusing his children to providing a ride home for a local drunk (Beauvois in a cameo appearance). 

At home, he lives happily with long-time girlfriend Marie (Marie-Julie Maille) and their daughter Paulette (Madeline Beauvois). At the start of the story, we even see him proposing to Marie at long last.

The film follows this format for the first hour, until the story quietly but effectively begins to shift focus. Local farmer Julien (Geoffrey Sery) has been growing increasingly agitated with EU restrictions regarding his farm and livestock; one day, he finally snaps, driving off with a shotgun. Laurent is convinced that he’s more of a danger to himself than to anyone else, but is determined to find him before anything bad can happen. One night, he finally manages to confront Julien — while he does everything he possibly can to de-escalate the situation, things spiral out of control and tragedy ensues.

It’s a smart, observant and keenly felt drama that takes a familiar storytelling trope and presents it in a more humane manner that one normally finds. 

Up to this point, Beauvois’ film has been a quietly intriguing work that at times suggests a standard police procedural placed in the hands of the Dardennes, a sensation that is underscored by the presence of Dardenne regular Renier in the lead. The next twenty minutes or so are even better, as Laurent is forced to deal with the fallout from his well-meaning actions and is threatened with the loss of everything he holds dear to him while tormented with the guilt he feels despite having done everything correctly in theory. 

What’s especially interesting here is how Beauvois avoids inflating the drama in order to garner more sympathy for Laurent—like Laurent on that fateful night, the people he faces are simply doing their jobs to the best of their ability, even though their efforts have the power to destroy lives as well.

It’s in the final section that Drift Away runs into trouble. Without going into too much detail, Laurent makes a surprising decision in the face of his mounting problems and inner turmoil and we watch the fallout from that choice through his eyes as well as Marie’s. 

Like the rest of the film, this section is well-constructed and beautifully performed by Renier. The key difference, however, is that I simply didn’t buy any of it. After the meticulous realism of what preceded it, the final act feels more like a construction devised by screenwriters unsure how to bring their otherwise compelling narrative to a conclusion.

This final section brings Drift Away down quite a bit, but it ultimately doesn’t sink the entire film. It’s a smart, observant and keenly felt drama that takes a familiar storytelling trope and presents it in a more humane manner that one normally finds. 

If only Beauvois had managed to come up with a stronger final act, Drift Away might have become the truly powerful and memorable drama suggested by the opening sections. Instead, it’s merely two-thirds of a great movie in search of a finale that is truly worthy of it.

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