Heitor Dhalia’s tautly constructed family drama, set on Brazil’s impossibly beautiful coastline, is a tale of nascent sexuality, infidelity and domestic dissolution. The message? Love is illogical, kids are curious and marriage is tough; its plot might be as original as the old analogy about what the bear does in the woods, but Dhalia’s movie, A Deriva in its native tongue, is beautifully packaged.
Seen through the eyes of Laura Neiva’s Filipa – the eldest daughter of Vincent Cassel’s philandering novelist Mathias and Deborah Bloch’s unstable alcoholic Clarice – who at 14 is already learning some tough lessons about adulthood and romance during the summer holidays on Brazil’s idyllic coast. As the relationship between her parents gradually disintegrates, Filipa is looking for answers, only to realise that, as is so often the case, no sensical ones can be found….
Dhalia’s film is beautifully shot and effectively communicates its polemic through savvy direction and solid performances. The Brazilian director’s camera is let loose, freely spanning the glorious cliff-faces and the ocean’s shallows like a seagull gliding over all below; this hugely expressive, though exposition-light, style gels nicely with the film’s central artistic plot as Cassel’s author tries to write his novel. Like Mathias, Dhalia lets his imagination carry him, and the result is some quite striking cinematography which wonderfully captures both the splendour of one of the world’s most beautiful locations and the grim realities of emotional breakdown. Each shot is a postcard here, from Filipa gliding up a mountain road on her moto-scooter to the sequence on Mathias’ speedboat. Dhalia’s eye for a wonderful moment is spectacular, and he uses it to full effect here.
As for performances, it should come as no surprise that Vincent Cassel is absolutely magnetic, further stating his case as the finest French actor of his generation. Speaking in an effortlessly fluent Portuguese (albeit one sprinkled with the occasional French phrase) he is commanding in every scene. Mathias is a deeply troubled, hugely flawed character, but such is the level of Cassel’s charisma that we spend large parts of the film not really caring. An irrepressible cool wafts over the screen when Cassel is on it, sporting linen shirts and fancy sunglasses like he’s enjoying every moment. Deborah Bloch more than stands her ground in the one-on-one moments, but even she seems powerless in the face of such a powerhouse. Neiva also shines as the adolescent Filipa, by turns innocent, inquisitive and impetuous. Her performance is wonderfully genuine, free from pretence and filled with the kind of energy that child actors often possess, but seldom harness so well.
What stops Adrift from being a classic is its plot, which slips into hackneyed cliché far too often. We’ve seen plenty of films dealing with marriage breakdown, analysing it from every conceivable angle and in every possible style, so yet another in this sequence washes over us like waves on the Brazilian shore. It may be sumptuously captured on camera, but even the magnificent setting cannot make up for the waif-like plotline. The messages are very obvious, the shades of grey painted with a roller rather than a brush, and the easy option is taken on several occasions. A murder in the town passes without comment, with no link to the central plot and no involvement by the leading characters whatsoever, just floating by like a sanguine cloud, unnoticed.
The performances and direction verge on excellence, but all too often Dhalia’s film just feels like a sequence of beautiful photos rather than a movie. It’s occasionally vapid, somewhat self-indulgent cinema in places and can’t really seem to work out what the point of this story really is. Is it a commentary on youth? On adulthood? On summertime? On marriage? We, and Dhalia, don’t really seem to know, but such is the prettiness with which the story is told that we can drift through it admiringly, as if in a moving art gallery.
Verdict: Adrift may succumb to triteness on occasion, but its vivid colour palette and creative cinematography lend it a lot of credibility. It’s a perfectly pleasant way to spend 97 minutes, but it’s something to enjoy visually more than cinematically. It’s more than fluff, but less than essential.