Back in 2013, I was treated to perhaps the most effective romance film I had ever seen in the French film and Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The romantic epic, while controversial for its explicit lesbian sex scenes and alleged abusive behavior from director Abdellatif Kechiche, the end result is perhaps the most emotionally wrenching film and most passionate romance film to ever be recorded. From the film, I was sure that newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos would come out an absolute global movie star, and with co-star Lèa Seydoux’s previous work in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and eventual casting of a Bond girl in “Spectre,” Exarchopoulos never really took off. Perhaps her global appeal is lost in her predilection for controversial films, or perhaps it’s her struggle with the English language (comparatively to other French actresses of her caliber), but despite one of the finest performances of this century, she’s never ventured outside of France.
“Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle)” is a bit different, because Exarchopoulos has ventured outside of France…to neighboring Belgium. Yeah, yeah, it’s not that big of a change, but it’s one of, if not the first time since starting college (and now ending it), that I’ve seen Exarchopoulos in a film showing in a Charlotte-area theater, which greatly excited me. Paired with now mid-level movie star Matthias Schoenaerts, the film has flown under the radar like most foreign-language films do, but there’s something so unique, daring and enticing about the concept of “Racer and the Jailbird” that rings true of the authenticity that European, specifically French and Belgian cinema, have over American drama.
Gino Vanoirbeek, a.k.a. Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a gangster living in Brussels who works under the guise of being an automotive importer and exporter. When he is introduced to racecar driver Bénédicte Delhany, a.k.a. Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Gigi is smitten with her cool demeanor and talent behind the wheel, while Bibi is taken with Gigi’s charm. Together, they form a passionate and loving relationship, while still under the guise of Gigi’s life as a car exporter. When Gigi’s career as a gangster and bank robber begins to become dangerous and threatening to their love, Bibi must come to terms with the life of her love, while also fighting to preserve it, and her relationship, before their dreams all go down the drain.
“Racer and the Jailbird” is a thrilling, yet slow-burn look inside the lives of two very different sides of the Belgian elite. One one side, you have Gigi’s high-flying lifestyle, built from crime from his poor upbringing, while Bibi’s affluent upbringing has made her relatively apathetic to much of the splendor that an upper-class life would afford her. Together, their lives intersect at a point that one might think they would pass by one another without batting an eye, but their love comes easy. One of the things I like about “Racer and the Jailbird” so much is that the film is not about the journey to love, but the drive it takes to keep it. So many romance films end on one last kiss, where our protagonists seal their fate for a prosperous, unproblematic future; “Racer and the Jailbird” throws that out the window. Rather than one last kiss, we’re treated to Gigi and Bibi’s first sex scene nearly 10 minutes into the film’s 130-minute runtime. When you get these pleasantries out of the way, the film has much more room to breathe as something far more intense, as it becomes a race against time for Gigi and Bibi to solidify their love before life, unbeknownst to Bibi, will get exceptionally harder.
Both Exarchopoulos and Shoenaerts are absolutely scene-stealing in the film with each of their charms and quirks working towards creating a wonderfully palpable energy that carries itself through the film’s entirety. Exarchopoulos’ presence on screen is too big to be ignored, and there’s a power, even in her quieter moments, that really solidifies her as one of the strongest actresses of her generation. Shoenaerts has also been able to prove his worth in many, often English-language films, in the past, but this is perhaps his best work to date as the tough, yet tortured Gigi. Together, they create some truly unique, if unconventional romantic magic. It’s not your typical romance film, at least not after the film’s first act, but as the film goes on, the power and struggle of real love, including the hard sacrifices needed to make it last, or perhaps not last, are made abundantly clear and are felt hard.
Director Michaël R. Roskam’s method in which directing the film is interesting, yet entirely gratifying. The film is actually shot more like a typical American thriller, under the guise of a European romance film behind it. This is some of the best that indie cinema can get: sleek, yet very gritty; impenetrable, yet vulnerable, this is a film of strange contradictions that surprisingly work out well in the end. It’s more American approach to the story makes the film feel much more unique and unexpected than if the film had been taken in a more experimental direction, resulting in something that feels inherently familiar, but is ripped out from underneath us in lieu of something entirely different and satisfying, if not always conventionally.
“Racer and the Jailbird” also is a rare film where the intentions of the characters are pure and selfless, if not always moral and understandable. The film has conflict, yes, but the film also is tenderhearted and very compassionate of the less-than-ideal situation that our characters are found in. Cynicism is not rampant in “Racer and the Jailbird,” and this sort of pure kindness exhibited by many of the characters, even ones that it would not be expected of, is quite refreshing to find, especially in a European drama.
“Racer and the Jailbird” isn’t without some issues though. While the film takes a while to get going, it’s never boring, but in the film’s final act (in which all three acts have names in the film), the film kind of goes off the rails in how the story is progressing. While this isn’t always a bad thing, as it keeps the film unpredictable, the passage of time in which the changes that bring the film to its off-the-wall conclusion felt stilted and a bit disingenuous to some audience members who let the film transport them in the first two acts. The film, even in these parts, again, is never boring, but it also feels inherently separated from the first two acts in a way that, even when its emotionally affecting finale finally takes place, doesn’t always feel right.
But despite that, the overall effect of “Racer and the Jailbird” is one of incredible love, great danger, and some truly unique thrills. It’s not the type of film to have you on the edge of your seat in the traditional sense, but the sense of newness and unpredictability that the film displays is one that feels very raw and genuine in its execution put forth mostly from the performances of our two leads. Shot surprisingly mainstream, but approached in a very different manner, the film plays off of the audience’s familiarity with films of this nature and twists them into something completely different and makes something new from something old. There’s something, even in its flaws, so enticing and magnetic about “Racer and the Jailbird,” even after its credits have rolled, that seems to be calling me back once more to experience the newness once more.
P.S. This is my last review I will be writing for the Niner Times, as my time at UNC Charlotte is coming to a close. 563 articles and countless movie reviews later, I want to thank any and all of you that have read my work and indulged me for the past four years from the bottom of my heart that. I’ve truly appreciated every second I’ve had here, and I’ll miss it a lot. Thank you for the years.
Directed by: Michaël R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Eric de Staercke, Jean-Benoît Ugeux, Nabil Missoumi, Thomas Coumans, Nathalie Van Tongelen, Kerem Can, Sam Louwyck.
Runtime: 130 minutes
Rating: R for some strong sexuality, nudity, violence, and for language.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.
A Super LTD release, Stone Angels and Savage Film present, “Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle),” a French–Belgian co-production Stone Angels and Savage Film, in co-production with Pathé, Wild Bunch, and co-produced by Eyeworks Film & TV Drama, Frakas Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Subla, RTBF, VOO and BETV, SCIO Productions, with the participation of Canal+, OCS, Telenet-STAP, VIM, Kineopolis Film Distribution, with the support of Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), Centre du Cinéma et de L’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, La Wallonie, Screen Flanders, Screen Brussels, Belgian Tax Shelter for Film Financing, Netherlands Film Fund, Eurimages, and Creative Europe Programme – Media of the EU