A Normandy-set cop movie with far more on its mind than simply solving the case, Xavier Beauvois’ Berlinale competition entry “Drift Away” examines the toll that law enforcement takes on an earnest sergeant (Jérémie Renier), and also how the locals react to intrusions by authority figures. Though not necessarily intended as such, it’s a nuanced rebuttal to recent anti-police protests in France and abroad, since it humanizes the role of an officer even as it hinges on the outcome of an armed confrontation between two gendarmes and a desperate farmer. Still, social-justice advocates may find it too convenient, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
Such cases are rarely cut and dried, and while this one duly upsets a community where gun violence is all but unheard of, the situation wears hardest on Renier’s character, Laurent Sandrail, who already is having a tough time separating work stress from his private life. He and girlfriend Marie (editor and co-writer Marie-Julie Maille) have been partners for a decade — they even have a daughter (Madeleine Beauvois) — but something has held them back from getting married until this moment.
The movie, whose French title is “Albatros,” puts stock in symbols, and no sooner has Laurent proposed than Beauvois (best known for Palme d’Or winner “Of Gods and Men”) delivers a doozy of a bad omen: At the seaside, another couple’s wedding photo shoot is rudely interrupted when a body smashes on the rocks beside them — almost certainly a suicide, falling from the region’s romantic white-chalk cliffs. As signs go, this can’t be good, but it’s business as usual for Laurent and his fellow gendarmes, who treat the scene with utmost professionalism.
“Drift Away” shadows Laurent and his colleagues through a series of typical small-town police cases, ranging from investigating a child abuse report to accompanying an indignant drunk home from the bar. Apart from one assignment — a beachfront mine-clearing complete with pyrotechnic kaboom — Beauvois depicts the rest as a documentary ride-along crew might, with almost no manufactured melodrama to amplify the excitement. From “Polisse” to “Les Misérables,” this faux-vérité approach has become fairly common in recent French policiers: an attempt to convey the unglamorous daily grind of a job that cinema has so long romanticized. Some, such as Arnaud Desplechin’s “Oh Mercy!,” become so mired in procedure that audiences lose interest.
Beauvois doesn’t take the banality to that extreme, but Laurent’s job seems episodic and potentially soul-crushing as shown — a litany of depressing situations in which he must face his fellow citizens at their worst — and the specter of suicide from that early scene haunts the rest of the film. Still, he’s a conscientious officer who takes some of the assignments too personally, as when he berates a reckless teen arrested for riding his moped without a helmet. “I’m the one who calls the parents!” he shouts, referring to another kid who killed himself the same way six months earlier.
These officers see it as their sincere duty to protect, and failing to do so can send their entire identity into disarray — as it eventually does Laurent. Apart from downtime with his family and regular fishing trips with a friend, there’s not much levity in his life. So we might take it as a harbinger of good luck when Laurent’s mother gives him a family treasure: the Albatross, a model ship assembled years earlier by his father. Certainly, that’s what the albatross means when it first appears in Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — although most of us remember the burden it comes to represent after the Mariner kills the innocent bird.
In any case, the poem’s albatross has never been an easy symbol to interpret, and Beauvois embraces that complexity here. Without revealing too much about the incident that upends the lives of all the characters, suffice it to say that Laurent and a young colleague find themselves in an impossible situation. It falls to them to enforce a number of livestock codes on a local cow farmer (Geoffrey Sery), whom Laurent also considers a friend, and when the exasperated man grabs a rifle and disappears, the movie takes on an uncommonly humanist kind of tension: Beauvois doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, and this deeply moral film will reshape itself around the looming tragedy.
Laurent transforms completely after what happens between him and the farmer, plunging into an almost catatonic state. Seldom do movies show grief manifest itself in this way, and rarer still upon police officers. The film’s English title suggests how Laurent chooses to deal with his emotions, though audiences may find the last act a challenge, if not a slog, compared with the psychological momentum of what came before. Depression brings with it a kind of inertia, and it’s tough to witness a fundamentally decent man dragged down and confronted by such a tempest as awaits Laurent.
Beauvois brings everything together in the movie’s final minutes, although it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Drift Away” has dodged what should have been its central social concern. Renier, a former child actor who began his career a quarter-century ago in the Dardenne brothers’ “La Promesse,” only gets better with age. Here, we see real weariness in the wrinkles now evident at the corners of his sea-blue eyes, but there’s something a bit too saintly in the character he’s been handed. Beauvois and co-writers Maille and Frédérique Moreau believe their hero needs space to heal, but the accident that sends him adrift impacts others as well, and the final scene, while superficially satisfying, leaves much unresolved for those caught in its wake.