Though the lead characters of Michaël Roskam‘s “Racer and the Jailbird” (original title: “Le Fidèle”) speak French, and conduct their low-key criminality on the streets of Brussels, their story feels like a song of old-timey heartland America — one of those spare, broken-hearted ditties in which boxers fall for waitresses and love conquers everything except bad luck. It’s an impression partly delivered by Roskam’s smooth, 70s-noir-tinged filmmaking, which suggests doomed romance in even the sunniest scene, but mostly it comes from the combination of leads Adele Exarchopoulos and Matthias Schoenaerts, who could not boast more chemistry if they were mixed in a conical flask and held over a bunsen burner. One of the most undersung and most potent pleasures of genre cinema is the excuse it has given us, time and again, to watch attractive people fall in love with each other, and if you’re in a romantic frame of mind, “Racer and the Jailbird” delivers so wholly on that front that it goes a fair way toward compensating for the film’s deficiencies elsewhere.
An exceptionally lovely Exarchopoulos plays Bibi, a tomboyish rich girl with a tough, pragmatic streak who races cars in her father’s team for a living. Schoenaerts is Gino aka Gigi (the similarity of their nicknames is an early point of connection), a bank robber from a broken background whose tight-knit gang bonded as kids in the foster system. They meet at a racetrack where Gigi is playing his cover story of being an importer/exporter of cars, and they make a date for two weeks later. “No flowers,” commands Bibi tersely and Gigi obeys, bringing her a bouquet of nothing but ardor which is reciprocated and quickly consummated, instantly becoming a relationship so giddily believable that it’s almost a shame the rest of the plot has to kick in. Perhaps Roskam should have looked through the viewfinder on day one, realized what [fire emoji] he had in these two actors playing off each other, and started from scratch.
Instead we follow the course of their affair as it intersects and collides with Gigi’s loyalty to his gang while they ramp up for One Last Score (a well-staged action scene when it happens, incidentally). With another actress in the role, it’s possible Bibi would be rather a weak character in this early part (which is titled “Gigi” as it mainly focuses on him). But Exarchopoulos projects such inner strength that even Bibi being technically in the dark as to her lover’s profession feels like a factor of her own will: she knows but chooses to blinker herself. Schoenaerts, in his third collaboration with Roskam (after “The Drop” and the Oscar-nominated “Bullhead“), perfectly modulates his intensely sympathetic character too, but is remarkable for the grace and generosity with which he cedes a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting to his onscreen lover, as if Gigi, compelled to the criminal life by forces he admits he doesn’t really comprehend, needs to see his own nature reflected in her clear gaze in order to understand himself. Between the two of them, they make their relationship feel like an irreducible fact, something worth fighting for and rooting for.
Bibi’s ignorance, intentional or otherwise, can only last so long. Eventually the police catch up to the gang, and where the script, co-written by Noé Debré, Roskam, and regular collaborator Thomas Bidegain, really sets itself apart from the standard outlaw-lovers-on-the-run narrative, is that Bibi, in fear for Gigi’s safety, turns him in. Twice. Somehow, these ostensible betrayals rank among the film’s most romantic and affecting moments, in which the paralleling of Gigi’s character to that of a dog whose better nature is struggling to prevail against years of training in viciousness, is made manifest.
Dogs also feature in Roskam’s previous Brooklyn-set feature “The Drop,” which again boasted a lead performance that elevated its less convincing twists: perhaps canines and casting are emerging as the most impressive elements of the Belgian director’s style. Though the velvety, low-lit cinematography and slightly throwback scoring, not to mention Schoenaerts ability to look like an off-duty tennis pro one moment and a tortured bad-boy the next, as well as Exarchopoulos’ facility for wearing the hell out of a cable-knit sweater, mean that “Racer and the Jailbird” also looks and sounds silkily, seedily delicious.
The goodwill built up by the smoldering central couple is needed, however, to get us through a third act that takes a few unexpected narrative chicanes at top speed, and the wheels come off, stranding us, bizarrely in standard weepie-melodrama territory — part Lifetime movie, part “PS I Love You.” And more’s the pity because until then it is an above-par crime romance with an eye for eccentric detail: during a heist scene a masked Gigi asks a trembling teller if she prefers to be menaced in French or Flemish; after a conjugal visit on the eve of her lover’s imprisonment Bibi puts her hand inside her own underwear and inhales the scent of their sex. And the film’s true turning point, a seemingly minor incident involving the kicking of a dog, might be the only such scene ever filmed in which one’s sympathies are with the human, not the canine involved (or maybe I’m just biased against Jack Russells).
“You can be a good guy or a bad guy, it’s up to you,” says Bibi’s father to Gigi at one point, “But a real man doesn’t lie.” Yet the film’s swooning conclusion — pulled back from the final act’s brink by a truly gorgeous grace-note coda that makes beautifully allusive sense of the film’s French title — is that some loves are so strong that they can transcend even deception, even separation, even terminal misfortune. It’s the sort of drunken romanticism that might otherwise cause us to roll our eyes, except that this racer and this jailbird make us believe it. [B/B+]