For a half-hour or so, Michaël R. Roskam’s Racer and the Jailbird coasts on the physical beauty of Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos as their characters flirt and fall in love and have quick, fevered sex in tight places. For a filmmaker drawn to thrillers, Roskam is patient, with an unusually matter-of-fact sense of dramatic emphasis. When Gigi (Schoenaerts) approaches Bibi (Exarchopoulos) at a race, he comes on to her so directly yet so nonchalantly that one wonders if he’s networking, and the eroticism of the moment springs from this mixture of the straightforward and the coy.
Gigi is a bank robber and Bibi is a racecar driver, but Roskam stages their unlikely, dangerous, Hitchcock-flavored romance as if it was an element in an ordinary relationship drama. Roskam allows us to take Bibi and Gigi’s rarefied trappings for granted, then, rendering us implicit insiders in the narrative. Gigi is gorgeous, but couldn’t have Bibi, who’s every bit his physical match, put him through his paces? A Hitchcock heroine would never settle this quickly, even if the man in question was Cary Grant, and if she did, there would be a catch. One imagines that Bibi, who lives in a seemingly all-male world of European business developers, old money, and politicians, would have elaborate defenses even against smoothies like Gigi. But then Gigi isn’t quite the player he appears to be, alternating between cunningness and idiocy as the narrative demands. Both characters are disappointingly simple—lambs lost in a mercenary world that appears to be populated by more interesting people.
Throughout Racer and the Jailbird’s first act, the viewer waits for the hammer to drop—for the springing of the trap that will test this relationship and juice it up a bit. Given the film’s title, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to hear that Gigi gets caught in one of his robberies—a chillingly casual highway heist that briefly brings the film to life, recalling the coiled tension of Roskam’s terrific The Drop. But the film falls apart after Gigi’s incarceration. Roskam prepares the audience for a story of a robber who does the mythological last job before returning to his adoring lover, and then switches genres not once, but twice. Racer and the Jailbird comes to concern a selfless martyr before morphing, most absurdly, into a disease-of-the-week tearjerker.
To successfully sell such flamboyantly ridiculous contortions, Roskam would probably have to double down on the harlequin emotionality of the material as Douglas Sirk might have. But the filmmaker continues to treat Racer and the Jailbird as a drab procedural, presenting arbitrary plot twists with a solemnity that runs the gamut from laughable to tedious. By this point, the film’s source of intrigue—the sex life between Bibi and Gigi, or, more specifically, the erotic appeal of Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos together—has long been squandered, while promising story threads are left dangling. Bibi’s father, Freddy (Eric De Staercke), disapproves of Gigi because the latter is obviously a fraud, though Freddy and Gigi’s business interests are revealed to intersect. Amazingly, Roskam does nothing with that information. A potentially resonant twist—that Bibi is rebelling against her father’s empire only to indirectly marry right back into it—is squandered.
Bibi is initially presented as a modern woman who insists that Gigi bring no flowers to their first date, exhibiting no awareness as to how dated and shopworn such displays of “independence” now are. (What modern man brings flowers to a woman on a first date anyway?) But this defensive throat-clearing doesn’t stop Roskam from reducing Bibi to a suffering wife with no identity apart from her dedication to springing Gigi out of prison. Though Roskam proves to be an equal-opportunity dramatist in a fashion that does his actors no favors: Gigi is every bit as pitifully devotional as Bibi.