The Sang-Froid of Drive

By  · Published on November 29th, 2016

What the film’s French title tells us that the U.S. title doesn’t.

Films often change their titles when they are translated into other languages. Usually it’s a matter of comprehension: a phrase or word in English might not have a comparative in another language, or perhaps the new culture requires a different explanation or encapsulation of what the film is about. In China, this year’s Ghostbusters is called Super Power Dare Die Team; in Denmark Die Hard With A Vengeance is the decidedly-adult sounding Die Hard: Mega Hard; and in Italy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind translates to the much blunter If You Leave Me I Delete You. One culture might make the film, but each culture that views it adds a layer of meaning and interpretation by what they title it, in many cases establishing different emotional and tonal expectations from their American counterparts.

As I discovered recently when replacing my personal copy, the French title of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is one such of these instances. The title there is Sang-Froid (sang-frwä), a noun which is defined by Webster as “composure … sometimes excessive, as shown in danger or under trying circumstances.” Basically it’s grace under fire but turned up a notch in terms of the grace taking on a more masculine connotation as coolness and the fire becoming a full-blown inferno. There is no equivalent term in English but as that definition could pass perfectly for a one-line description of The Driver (Ryan Gosling), in several ways it’s a more fitting title than even Drive.

Besides being a noun instead of a verb, thus placing the emphasis on the character of The Driver himself rather than his actions, Sang-Froid conjures different connotations than Drive, which ostensibly establishes the film as one based on action; Sang-Froid implies a more introspective film and would seem to suggest that whatever thrills are coming aren’t derived from the events or occurrences The Driver inflicts or survives, but rather from the motivations within himself that puts him in their path to begin with. And when the events and occurrences turn excessive, so too does The Driver’s sang-froid, ultimately leading to his undoing.

In terms of how The Driver encapsulates the meaning behind “sang-froid,” honestly, how doesn’t he? As I said, the term is pretty much a perfect description of him, and nearly everything he does reiterates this. It’s practically patterned behavior: in his professional, personal, and romantic relationships he projects constant composure, a façade which has the side-effect of blocking him from objectively living his life. He becomes a slave to his composure, in a sense, it is the thing to be maintained above all else, his own personal status quo, and in certain instances this composure becomes excessive to the point it drives people away, turns friends to enemies, or manifests in irrevocable violence.

In the opening scene while waiting to pick up his passengers The Driver is quiet, calm, his jaw locked and his toothpick steady, even later as he weaves in and out of traffic at 80 miles an hour; but he gets a little too cool, following a police car when he should be playing it safe and avoiding them. This decision puts The Driver and his clients on a path that leads them into the sights of the police helicopter, and though he eventually shakes the cops and makes a clean getaway, his excessive exhibition of composure had the immediate consequence of increasing the peril of his situation, something with which it was already overwrought. For The Driver, however, the accomplishment isn’t the getaway, it’s the elusion, it isn’t about delivering his clients, it’s about tempting fate and taunting authority; and, of course, it’s about testing his composure against trying circumstances, it’s about tempering it, making it stronger.

In his relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), The Driver is the stereotypical cool male, too much so to share his true feelings with her, or really any vulnerability, as best revealed in one of the early scenes between them when she asks about his job as a stunt driver for the movies: “Isn’t that dangerous?” His response is to not respond, just offer a muted and telling smile that says “Of course it is, but a real man, a cool, composed man, would never admit it.” The real danger to The Driver is emotional honesty, and his sang-froid is the barrier between it and exposure. This is why he doesn’t speak to Irene in the elevator the first time we see them together, it’s why he avoids her and her son in the market, and it’s why he doesn’t interact with her until her car breaks down and his composure (not to mention his mechanical skillset) forces him to inject himself into her trying circumstance. It’s also why, later when their emotional bond has strengthened to the point that composure should fall away for the sake of emotional honesty, he again remains silent when she tells him her husband is coming home from prison. The Driver could state his case, he could offer himself, he could ask for her affections – which he knows she harbors – but his coolness, his composure, his sang-froid prevents him from revealing his true self, especially in the trying circumstance of her slipping through his fingers.

When it comes to this husband, Standard (Oliver Isaac), The Driver further subjugates his true will, in essence giving in to his composure, by not taking the dick-measuring bait Standard offers up in their first couple of meetings, and also by deciding to help Standard when he finds him pummeled by men who aim to have him rob a pawn shop to pay a protection debt. The Driver could have easily exposed Standard’s continuing criminal activities to Irene, or to the police, and removed the man, the hindrance, from the equation of he and Irene, but instead he puts himself in harm’s way because that’s what his composure would have him do: save the day – in this instance defined as sparing Irene from further hardships – by any means necessary. Crime is, after all, his business, and so far as The Driver is in charge, so long it’s his composure in control, business is good.

It’s in his business especially that The Driver is the epitome of composure. I mentioned his stoicism in the opening scene, and this is meant to establish his persona in all related matters. He has simple rules that he adheres to without pause or variation because they keep him safe, out of jail, and in high-standing with those in need of such services. His composure is his calling card, it is his résumé, and in a society that measures a man by his occupation, it is his worth, his value, his reason for being. But when in a diner he encounters an old client whose sense of discretion isn’t up to The Driver’s standards, his composure is exposed to a truly trying circumstance – one that could result in his outing as a criminal, with all the consequences personal and legal that implies – and so that composure falls away and we see him express violent tendencies for the first time when he tells the man: “How about this. Shut your mouth or I’ll kick your teeth in and shut it for you.” It’s at this point we learn his composure has a limit, and a graphically-brutal one, at that. We see now how composure when pressed becomes desperation, and desperation in some people, like The Driver, is a very, very dangerous thing. This scene starts the downhill slide into the bloody maelstrom of act three.

The Driver’s composure gets its greatest test to that point in the film in the form of the pawn shop robbery, and it doesn’t hold up, it doesn’t prevent the situation from going south, which it is supposed to do. Composure, after all, is only admirable if it works, it’s only a positive trait if it helps you keep your head level while everyone else is losing theirs. When Standard is killed and The Driver is left with money he now realizes they were set up to steal, there is no more need for composure, so he lets it go. He hits Blanche trying to find out the truth, and moments later when would-be assassins descend on the motel room, he kills them, their blood on his face at scene’s end a quite clear signifier that our story is about to enter its last and most-savage chapter. But before it does, Refn needs to show us that this violence isn’t reactionary or defensive; if it was, it wouldn’t be nearly as excessive – like his composure has been until now – as it’s going to be. So the director sends The Driver to a strip club to confront the thug who organized the robbery. Without even speaking a word The Driver smashes the thug’s hand and threatens to hammer a bullet into his skull if he doesn’t tell him who the money belongs to so The Driver can return it. As he crouches over the man with the hammer raised, ready to deliver on his threat, The Driver is trembling. The toothpick in his mouth is twitching up and down. This is a shaky mirror to the opening sequence, and proof that he has finally lost his grip on the sang-froid that defines him. He has given up on thought and given in to his inner sadism, and this isn’t a switch, a thing that can be flipped back and forth, it is a door that locks behind him. This is the scene in which The Driver opens the door. It is in the next that he closes it again, on the other, darker side now.

As I pinpoint it, the third act begins after the scene in the elevator in which The Driver kisses Irene then kills the hitman sharing their ride by stomping his head into jelly. Before this murder, The Driver finally and irrevocably revealed his emotions for Irene; after it, she reveals hers. The look on her face when the elevator closes between them at the end of this scene – an amalgam of shock, confusion, fear, disbelief, and disgust in this, in him, in herself, even – says it all in regards to this burgeoning relationship: it’s over, definitively, and it is never able to be repaired. Composure to The Driver was his way of interacting with the world, of being in the world, it was his way of keeping himself and his baser tendencies in check and thus safe. These tendencies, in fact, could have been the impetus for The Driver developing such composure. He could have come to a point in his emotional development where he realized he had to either learn to temper his violent side, or give in to it; wanting underneath it all to be if not good then “normal,” he would have tried to control himself, he would have believed his was an animal able to be tamed. He was wrong, but that doesn’t make his decision to try any less valiant; it does, however, make his failure that much more tragic.

From this moment until the end of the film The Driver’s composure, his sang-froid, is all but gone. Violence begets more violence, more violent violence, and culminates in The Driver’s own life seemingly up for forfeit. But it is then, in what are likely his last moments, in this most-trying of circumstances, that his composure returns. Instead of lying down to die or seeking help, instead of panicking or crying or lashing out in (more) pointless anger, The Driver re-seizes his cool. He gets in the last safe space he can think of, the last space reserved just for him – the driver’s seat – and he calmly, coolly, stoically sets off for the horizon. He will at least die composed, even if that same composure delivered him to death in the first place.

By titling Drive Sang-Froid in French, distributors let the audience in on a secret that American filmgoers had to discover for themselves: this isn’t an action film. Above all else and in its own brilliantly-bizarre fashion, Drive is a love story, it’s about the compromises to character that love can coerce, the thoughts and actions that go against our instincts but will not be ignored. Drawing attention to The Driver’s primary character trait, his excessively cool composure, before the film even starts turns it into the filter through which audiences view the film: if it’s there in the first act then like Chekov’s gun it must go off by the third. Now Drive – or rather Sang-Froid – becomes a waiting game, a fuse burning down to what one can only assume will be a spectacular explosion of composure, and a complete refusal of its more admirable aspects.

The Driver’s composure got him everything he had: his job(s), the people in his life, his safety, his freedom, his reputation. But it is the same composure that when pushed to excess by a series of trying circumstances, not the least of which is the irrevocable loss of the woman he loves, that drives him instead to the grave.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist