VOD film review: Racer and the Jailbird
Use of Adèle Exarchopoulos2
Rachel Bowles | On 14, Jul 2018
Director: Michaël R. Roskam
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Eric De Staercke
Racer and the Jailbird may sound like an expensive bar where you’ll have to pay £10 to stand and sip on a mason jar of heritage gin and tonic, but it’s actually just the English “translation” of Le Fidèle (The Faithful One), a Brussels-set romantic crime melodrama that manages to disappoint on all fronts. Even worse, at 150 minutes, there’s a lot of disappointment to sit through.
Its central plot conceit – two easy-on-the-eye star-crossed lovers from very different backgrounds that bond over a shared love of fast cars – shouldn’t be this laborious and unentertaining. It neither achieves the pleasures of an empty-headed, slick, sexy heist flick nor explores the hypocritical machinations of flashy one-percenter society and the seedy criminal underworld that bolsters it. Racer and the Jailbird is certainly ambitious in that it aims to deliver both, but it misses the mark wildly with a cheesy script that relies on tiresome clichés, occasionally dropping in a half-hearted motif or half-baked would-be, could-be interesting idea. The result is a head-scratcher for all the wrong reasons – a film that coasts on its leads’ combined charisma in place of character development and the odd aesthetically interesting sequence.
An optimistic, captive audience would be forgiven in hoping that Racer and the Jailbird is always just about to riotously kick into fifth gear, with narrative coherence forever just up ahead, and that the sunk cost of extensive tedium between hints of cinematic potential will be worthwhile in retrospect. It’s a promise the film keeps deferring right into its final moments and ultimately never fulfils.
Acting both as writer and director, and given ample runtime, the buck surely stops with Michaël R. Roskam. If his name or brooding lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts’ face seems familiar, you may know the pair from their first feature, the Oscar nominated Bullhead (2011), or the star-studded The Drop (2014) with Tom Hardy, Noomi Raplace and the late, great James Gandolfini. If critical and public reception are anything to go by, Racer and the Jailbird is a full peg or two down from both and viewers expecting similar quality will be frustrated.
The “racer” referred to in Roksam’s ungainly title is Bénédicte Delhany, aka. Bibi (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue is the Warmest Colour fame), a professional racing driver with a privileged background. Her “jailbird” lover is Gino Vanoirbeek, aka. Gigi, played by Schoenaerts. (Apart from grace and aesthetics, another victim of that cumbersome English title is the spoiler of Gigi’s fate, as to be prison bound at some point.) Gigi has managed to infiltrate Bibi’s upper-class echelon with outer signifiers of wealth – his watch, his tailored suits, his Audi, and a vague cover story of being an importer/exporter of cars to hide his actual money making as a successful bank robber. Being a friend of Nando’s, Bibi’s brother, Gigi happens to be hanging around the racetrack where Bibi is practicing laps.
There is a super-male gaze, Bond girl moment, where Bibi gets out of her race car in a tight white top and takes off her helmet, literally shaking her head as if in a shampoo commercial to reveal her choppy, sexy bob. We realise that she is a (gasp!) female (gasp!) racing driver and even more importantly (gasp!) is conventionally sexually attractive. Perhaps this assessment is a tad unfair, as our gaze may be aligned with Gigi, who is arguably falling in love with her at first sight, but surely there is a less clichéd way to communicate this plot point, especially one that allows Bibi to be a sexual subject, rather than a sexualised object? Sadly, Bibi’s characterisation doesn’t really plumb greater depths than this. In their meet cute, Bibi, being a desirable object for conquest, dutifully plays coy for a few sentences, before agreeing to Gigi’s requests for a date. “Pas de fleurs!” (“No flowers!”) she demands, though, just in case the audience didn’t yet get that Bibi is not like other girls.
If these misogynistic tropes weren’t enough, we’re shown the development of Bibi and Gigi’s love by quick cuts to instantaneous and simultaneous orgiastic climaxes, probably the laziest of all sex scene tropes. Poor Adele Exarchopoulos seems to have been cast only for her charisma and sex appeal, and not her demonstrable acting skill. Roskam capitalises on her appearance – she is somehow ordinary looking yet extremely attractive, with a sexy perma-bedhead framing her youthful face, her pursed lips giving her a somewhat vacant expression. It’s this implacable countenance that does the heavy lifting for her side of the plot, as the script gives her so little to work with, although sometimes this works against her – when she is supposed to be at her most alive behind the wheel of a fast car, she practically looks dead-eyed. There are brief moments when she comes alive: after Gigi has said goodbye more formally, he returns to surprise her with hugs and kisses, as she is eating cheese from a knife blade – this spontaneous romantic gesture sees her break into an infectious smile, but it’s the only time their love and its chemistry is given dimensions beyond that of a perfume advert, and, of course, Bibi doesn’t exist outside their romance.
If that isn’t a problem for the viewer, perhaps the bizarre streak of racism will be. Racer and the Jailbird starts out trying to be inclusive – one of Gigi’s criminal gang and perhaps his third or maybe even second best friend is an Arab. In classic person of colour cliché, the Arab friend is, however, the one to get horribly injured in the heist and hold the gang back. Even more problematically, when Gigi has to cover up a severe black eye incurred during the bank robbery, he blames it on “some Poles”, while Bibi is repeatedly courted by a sinister Albanian gang leader, Benze (Kerem Can), whose gang (unlike Gigi’s, who describe themselves as Robin Hood figures) is characterised as evil and any dealings with them are treated by the film’s heroes like pacts with the Devil.
There are also little to no stakes for this would-be Romeo and Juliet to drive the plot. Bibi has no interest in being Bonnie to Gigi’s Clyde and Bibi’s wealth means that neither really has any economic imperative to dabble in risky behaviour, beyond the fact that they want to. In a better film, this would be justification enough, but in Racer and the Jailbird, these once all-encompassing drives that push Gigi to risk everything are dropped by the end of the first act, leaving us wondering why they bother in the first place. When Gigi argues that he has to complete the tired conceit of “one last job”, it seems to no logical end.
Gigi is, of course, afforded more characterisation than poor Bibi, but that doesn’t actually makes him any more interesting. He is a weak sauce Byronic anti-hero and a true gentleman – he’s nice to the female bank clerk he terrorises. Perhaps his most interesting trait is his canophobia, although even this simple characteristic is too difficult for the plot to maintain consistency on (it’s dropped at one point so he can tell a horrible childhood anecdote about a cocker spaniel – one of two animal death jokes). Racer and the Jailbird’s obsessive motif of dogs is almost interesting – we see them as pets, bloody and abused, and as vicious aggressors. There’s meaning in there somewhere – they are metaphors for humanity and its effects, they are shadows of their owners, and can be dangerous, vulnerable, bullied, loving, loyal, prone to abuse, and a product of their environment. Roskam doesn’t make any of this count, though. The occasional aesthetic flourishes similarly come to nothing, such as the bizarre straitjacket-like masks with inbuilt disguising vocoders that the gang wear for a bank robbery, or the impressively shot “one last job”, a single take that involves a shipping container dropped to block off a motorway. Here, Roksam shows he may have a future in Hollywood, but Racer and the Jailbird is certainly no Sirk or Hitchcock: it can’t even pull off Gigi and Bibi arguing while driving recklessly in her beloved Porsche with any sense of thrilling suspense, wit or aestheticism.