Billed as an ‘amour noir’, Racer and the Jailbird (original title Le Fidèle) aims for a throwback to old school doomed romance, featuring high stakes, fast cars and rough eroticism, with gripping sex scenes between two of Europe’s sexiest screen stars, Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Despite vehement performances from both leads, Racer and the Jailbird skids through a number of narrative metamorphoses, never gracefully, ultimately suffering from its built-in identity crisis.
Split into three chapters, Roskam’s third feature begins with a chance meeting between two lovers to be. Bibi (a magnetic Exarchopoulos), the eponymous racer, is introduced at a post-race celebration to Gigi (Gallic hunk was invented for Schoenaerts), who is smitten as soon as he sees her. They flirt, arrange a date where Gigi is to bring “no flowers” and before long they’ve fallen in love.
The first chapter is titled after Gigi, who professionally presents himself as working in imports/exports, but is soon revealed to be a bank robber. While this is a compelling obstacle for the star-crossed lovers – the burden of keeping the secret, the inevitability of the revelation, the anxiety of the separation – and is fitting to Roskam’s signature suspense, providing great dramatic action, it fizzles out far too soon, leaving far too much narrative space to fill in.
By the time the “Bibi” chapter begins, narrative restraint, already at a loose grip, is abandoned. Racer enters different genres with the commitment of an ADHD teenager off their meds, while serious subject matter is presented with melodramatic effect, as the two lovers are disfigured from who they were at the beginning of the film.
Bibi abandons her racing career (not that the audience got to see much beyond the unzipping of her suit), deciding to get pregnant so that Gigi will have something to hold to to while behind bars. And if you thought that was the most inorganic twist the film could take, the final chapter “No flowers” dispels all notions of coherence, narrative and beyond, descending into sentimentality and martyrdom.
Exarchopoulos and Schoenaerts are mesmerising when they share the screen. The sex scenes are handled well, albeit remaining a little too fixed on Exarchopoulos’ nudity, but though the film is hardly overloaded with them, they overwhelm the alleged romance to such an extent that it comes across more like a libidinous thrill-ride for the two lovers. In opting to focus on the undeniable sexual chemistry between the two leads, Roskam has obliterated all emotional connection hinted between the characters, increasingly trapped in the director’s clouded vision of what Racer is.
Stylishly shot with precision by Nicolas Karakatsanis, the film’s adrenaline-fuelled scenes shine; the main robbery scene featuring a shipping container dropped from a bridge is outstanding and has a genuine sense of urgency, keeping the viewer transfixed. Another compelling sequence sees Bibi dangerously speeding up in her car in the effort to get Gigi to reveal whatever secret he’s keeping, while the final scene seems like a one-take through the streets of Brussels, a thrill-ride in its own right.
At a running time of 130 minutes, Racer and the Jailbird ultimately requires a level of commitment from the audience that, much like the film’s division and genre-jumping, cannot be justified.
Reviewed at Vue Leicester Square Cinema, London. October 4, 2017 Directed by Michaël R. Roskam. Screenplay by Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré and Michaël R. Roskam. Cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis. Editing by Alain Dessauvage. Running time: 130 minutes With Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos.