There’s a sadness woven into Xavier Beauvois’s latest slice of rural French life that wriggles under your skin. Like his last, the quietly sublime Great War homefront opus The Guardians, it’s a slowburn drama built from raw materials that don’t sound like a whole lot written down – a family man going about his job in increasingly difficult circumstances – but which coalesce into something lingering and profound.
Drift Away follows Laurent (Jérémie Renier), an experienced Normandy cop who is starting to take the daily stresses of his job home with him. His pregnant partner, Marie (Marie-Julie Maille, who also co-wrote the script), and their young daughter dote on him but his fraying state of mind is beginning to take its toil on them too. Their arguments develop a bit more bite, the silences become more pointed. He’s wobbling, approaching burnout as he deals with beachside suicides, unexploded sea mines and hacked-off farmers railing against their dying way of life.
Then something awful happens – a disaster of his own making – and the wheels come off completely.
Broodingly and often without a lot of dialogue, the impressive Renier sells Laurent as an essentially good man who is slowly drowning under a steady accretion of small traumas. The fishing village of Étretat, a shingle beach where Monet once painted The Manneporte, offers a backdrop for his unit’s toils rendered distinctly unromantic by cinematographer Julien Hirsch’s palette of slate greys and foreboding blues – not to mention a spate of suicides by struggling local farmers.
Aside from one (disastrous) shootout, Drift Away is not a film full of cop-movie clichés. When Julien (Geoffrey Sery), a local farmer, goes missing, Laurent and his small team scratch around for ways to locate him, eventually finding a surveillance camera that’s been sitting in a desk drawer because no one knows how to use it. This is a quiet world where things are done as they always have been: a bit on the hoof, and with a sympathetic spirit. But as Beauvois shows, it’s wildly unprepared for the kind of crisis that hits it, and the public attention that comes with it.
Much of the film’s quiet power comes in showing how those shockwaves ripple out like waves on the ever-present English Channel. But Beauvois’ other strength – something he shares with Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers – lies in showing how his characters are buffeted by capitalist forces not just outside their control, but beyond their horizons.
Just as The Guardians charted the ways war brought profound change to a small band of women many miles from the trenches, in Drift Away he’s showing how unseen forces are making an age-old way of life untenable, and how painful the consequences are for people like Laurent, Marie and Julien. Watched together, they’d make a moving origin story and requiem for modern life in rural France.
Drift Away premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival