The Drifting

The Drifting ★★★★½

The debut feature from Paula Delsol, The Drifting is a striking illustration of the limitations of our collective memory when it comes to the French New Wave, a movement declared by a voice as authoritative as Criterion to feature only one female director, Agnes Varda. Delsol, who wrote, directed, and financed the film herself, would beg to differ, as would her friend and collaborator François Truffaut, as well as the notoriously masculine Cahiers du cinéma, to which she was a frequent and respected contributor.

Immediately denied an export certificate for its frankness about female sexuality and reproduction, Delsol's film is a strikingly feminist text, one which embraces its lead character's unmoored nature, and her decision to move through her life using men as touchstones. We meet the character, who Delsol renamed after her lead actress, Jacqueline Vandal, because of the connections she saw between their confidence and unpredictability, with her busker boyfriend, a man she follows around France by rail, watching happily as he plays in cafés. When, however, he deserts her without explanation on a train, Jacquie is free to redirect her life, should she choose to do so. Embracing the freedom, Jacquie gets drunk and sleeps with a stranger — only her second lover, she tells him, before he leaves in the morning, without telling her his name.

Making her way home after two years to her judgmental mother, and the sister who lives in the family home with her husband and two sons, twenty year old Jacquie is gossiped about mercilessly by the arrogantly superior people of her town, her jealous, angry sister very much included. Not only unbothered, but vaguely tickled by the talk, Jacquie has an audience as she explores taking up again with her old boyfriend, a fisherman who struggles to stay away from her, despite knowing she's not interested in anything permanent.

As we watch Jacquie and listen to her interactions, we learn that she is casually unemployed, insisting to anyone who asks that she's not good at anything, and therefore not employable. We also learn that she cannot have children, because of what is strongly implied to have been a sloppy, illegal abortion, and that her sister's constant picking, and referring to her as a "slut", does nothing but encourage Jacquie to defy what society demands of women, making her even more certain that she will not be told what to do.

Jacquie's progression from lover to lover is fascinating because of the different ways in which they see her. For one, she's a drunk pickup and nothing more. For another, a rich kid with a villa of his own, she's a playful sexy companion, if only for a little while. And, for a third — the uncle of the rich kid, no less — she's an object to buy, something about which he is bracingly frank.

The relationship between the older, married man (Maurice, played by Lucien Barjon) and Jacquie is transactional from the word go, with his explicit talk about buying her, and about how there have always been women willing to be bought. It feels less like it's being done to insult or shock her than it is to pay her a degree of respect: he's not going to pretend this is a love match, or even that she's attracted to him, but they're both getting something they want out of their relationship, and putting their chips on the table is, perhaps, the most mature way to handle their time together, however long it might last.

Initially unsure, Jacquie quickly settles into her new life as a kept woman, driving Maurice's car, and moving into a beach house that Maurice and his wife don't use (until his wife shows up). None of it, however, makes her defer to the man who is financially supporting her — she misses rendezvous or turns up late, infuriating Maurice, who is more jealous than indignant because he's being ripped off.

It's all so interesting to watch, and becomes even more so when, getting Maurice's car stuck in the sand, Jacquie is rescued by a penniless artist who lives in a hut on the beach; they have sex in the sand and, very quickly, develop a mutual connection. Though the man assures Jacquie that his attention cannot possibly be lasting, the film presents this final coupling as Jacquie's happy ending, or as close as she could get to one. Her guitar player boyfriend was a penniless artist and now, after trying out casual sex and sleeping with rich boys and rich men, Jacquie finds herself with another philosophizing poor man. It might not last, but right now she's happy and, as far as Jacquie is concerned, that's all that matters.

Despite the fierce, defiant feminism of The Drifting, there's something about it that nags: Jacquie is free, and she is determined to make her own way, sexually and otherwise, but thinks to do so only through her connections to men. Her independence is never presented as a desire to live alone, or to get away from her family, or to move away and start her own life. Instead, each escape is linked to a man; each act of defiance is attaching herself to a lover; her rejection of social expectations placed upon her gender are about her sex life.

Asked in 1963 about her goals for the film, Delsol said this:

I wanted to make a portrait of a young girl who wanted to escape from her environment [...] I wanted to show that women were looking to be the equal of men in terms of their sexual freedom, and that in playing that game they would always be beaten.*

In her words, Delsol seems to be suggesting several layers of limitations on her protagonist: not only are women doomed to always be acted upon when it comes to sexual encounters but also, perhaps, by choosing that arena as their field of battle, women have lost already. Intentionally or not, it almost feels as if Delsol is illustrating not only a young woman with a craving for freedom, but also the ways in which even the most rebellious of young women underestimate themselves, and place several limits on their own worlds.

Perhaps, had Delsol been able to make another feature in fewer than the nearly fifteen years she spent between them, she might, next time, have presented a female protagonist with a slightly broader view of herself and (in) the world, one learning to see herself away from men, and without attachments.

*For anyone interested in learning more, I highly recommend Drift: Paule Delsol inside and outside the French New Wave, by Tim Palmer, from which this quote was taken.

52 Films by Women: 2023 | 2022 | watchlist

Block or Report