To put it simply, Racer and the Jailbird is an example of when a good concept with good actors and good performances doesn’t ignite for some reason; Mattias Schoenaerts (as Gigi, the Jailbird) and Adèle Exarchopoulo (as Bibi, the Racer) both deliver great performances as an against-the-odds couple. The problem, however, lies in the execution. With a too-long running time, a patchily constructed narrative with clunky tonal shifts – it feels like a film that didn’t get to make the most of its potential. This is a double shame as not only does it feel like a waste of two greats talents, it actually starts out rather well indeed.
The film opens with Gigi at the races. The company he keeps and the ID badge around his neck suggests he is a Very Important Person. Although the industry to which he belongs seems questionable… Whilst being given a private tour of the behind-the-scenes he is instantly captivated by Bibi, a well-regarder racer who just happens to be the sister of his tour guide. A meet-cute soon follows where Gigi turns the charms up to eleven and yet Bibi seems mostly immune, agreeing to a date but insisting on ‘no flowers’. The date soon follows and their relationship speeds up as quickly as she drives. But of course, as the title makes clear, if she is the racer then he must be the jailbird; his secrets and overall secretive nature could derail everything.
For one thing, that title really undermines the film. Not only does it remove any mystery about Gigi’s profession it also makes the film sound like a tepid romance. And, whilst the film is far from brilliant, it has aspects and moments that are far better than that. This is an instance where the title has been lost in translation. The original title La Fidele (meaning faithful) has connotations far more reflective of the film; it suggests doubt, uncertainty, commitment and belief. All of which play a part in the film. What’s unfortunate is that this side of things isn’t fully explored. Which is even more bizarre considering the film’s running time and that not much actually happens, comparatively at least.
Maybe that’s because the film has something of an identity crisis – it’s not exactly sure what it wants to be. I’d be inclined to refer to it as a romance with a side of crime but the romance side of things doesn’t last all that long and gets sidelined all-too-quickly. There’s jarring tonal shifts throughout, the last being the worst as the film descends into melodrama. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with melodrama, it’s a hugely and undeservedly maligned genre, it’s not a natural progression. It’s a sudden shift used to maximise drama; which doesn’t really work at the 90 minute mark and you’ve already stopped caring about the characters. That’s one of the worst sins the film commits; it makes melodrama boring.
The fundamental concept at work is a good one – how much can be endured when love is truly tested? But, and to use an extended metaphor as lumbering and clumsy as the film itself, whilst it starts off with great pace the film hits so many obstacles that it crashes long before the finish line. It then attempts to find its way to the finish line without any support from the behind-the-scenes at a point when no-one is really watching or caring.
Dir: Michaël R. Roskam
Scr: Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré, Michaël R. Roskam
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Eric De Staercke, Jean-Benoît Ugeux, Nabil Missoumi.
Prd: Bart Van Langendonck, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
DoP: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Music: Raf Keunen
Country: Belgium, France
Runtime: 130 minutes
Racer and the Jailbird is in UK cinemas now.