By: Joshua Minsoo Kim
Director: Helena Wittmann
Runtime: 95 mins | Genre: Drama
Helena Wittmann's debut film Drift features a loose narrative: two women (Theresa George, Josefina Gill) convene at a beach house in Sylt, converse throughout their stay, and eventually depart. During the first third of the film, the ocean is initially perceived as something important, but perhaps secondary to the leads. Images of water are to be expected for a film taking place on the German island, but they slowly inform how the remainder of the film is experienced. In viewing these bodies of water, one continuously finds analogues in shots that don't prioritize water. For one, observations of their movement become mirrored in travels by land: a gentle rivulet finds itself in the tracking shot of a bicycle ride, while the gentle ebb and flow of the ocean bears resemblance to a car driving down a bumpy street. The sensuous shapes of these bodies also manifest in a flapping sail, the curvature of leaves, and the duvet that lay atop the women's bed. The women even share myths related to water; that Wittmann presents an anthropological component to water reveals her desire for us to comprehend it as something far more multifaceted than we may think.
This all gradually primes the listener for the film's centerpiece: a relentless 20 minutes of immersive ocean photography. Here, we feel the rapturous physicality of the waters. Wittmann allows the camera to rock with the boat's own movements, causing an even more hypnotic view of the ocean. It's initially accompanied by the familiar sounds of waves breaking, but it soon fades into deep, oscillating tones that maintain our attention. This shift in sound also acts to highlight the stark differences between the water during the day and night, and showcases how it has multiple personalities: an entire life of its own. When we finally land on shore, Wittmann employs shots that heavily bring to mind Larry Gottheim's Fog Line. It's the gradual appearance of the landscape that eases us from the time-dilating images of the ocean into the narrative that began the film. Even so, the following images constantly feel like they're calling back to the rhythm and movement of those waters—spiraling seagulls, revolving glass doors, reflective train windows.
In observing the Atlantic ocean, there's a sense that this separation between the two women is too great to fathom. But in a stunning final shot, we see the two sharing each other's company through video chat. Paying explicit homage to Michael Snow's Wavelength, Wittmann zooms in on a photograph of the ocean, eventually allowing it to cover the entirety of the frame. Just as Snow's film made use of its polysemic title, Wittmann makes clear that Drift is a reference to both the movement of water, of women, of time. That the scene is accompanied by Donnie & Joe Emerson's recently unearthed "Baby" is apt. Just as the two were able to perform the song to an audience of fans after decades of anonymity, the reunion of George and Gill's characters is a small but heartwarming event. While George and Gill's characters are separated, there's a sense that they're still moving together, slowly along the Atlantic.