It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Calvin Law examines Michaël R. Roskam’s crime romance from LFF’s ‘Thrill’ strand.
The third collaboration between Belgian cinema heavyweights Michaël R. Roskam and Matthias Schoenaerts, Racer and the Jailbird, subverts the proverb ‘third time’s the charm’. Director and star first collaborated to create a powerful, haunting character study in the gritty, Academy Award-nominated Bullhead, and moved seamlessly to the United States with the low-key and atmospheric Brooklyn-set The Drop. By contrast, this romantic crime-drama is chock full of irreparable structural problems, and crumbles into an inconsistent tone it never recovers from.
Having said that, the film is worth watching, if only for its opening half. Roskam establishes an atmospheric slow-burn while setting up the morally ambivalent world of Brussels, and the relationship between Schoenaerts’s Gigi – a bank robber masquerading as a vehicle dealer – and young race-car driver Bibi (Blue is the Warmest Colour star Adèle Exarchopoulos). It’s in this first narrative sequence, entitled ‘Gigi’, that the film excels. The romance between the two characters is fast and snappily handled, built up with casual flirtations and forward advances. The mood and setting of these scenes, from Bibi’s luxurious apartment to the beloved racetrack where her adrenaline-pumped driving is captured in stunning detail, are edited perfectly; the same is true of the shadier sides of Gigi’s rapport with his less than savoury friends, and the bluntly-portrayed crimes they carry out. When Gigi reveals the darker side of his life to Bibi, it’s through a casual post-coital joke; when pulled over by the police for speeding, Bibi’s reading of Gigi’s uncomfortable body language speaks more volumes than any long monologue could do.
This first act is a great short film in itself, exploring the blossoming passion between the lovers and the growing stakes and risks involving Gigi’s gang. It gives a real weight to the tensions that arise between Gigi and Bibi over the former’s dishonesty and the latter’s fragile innocence. All this culminates in some breathtaking scenes, like a steamy pre-race lovemaking session that’s beautifully lit and shot, or a mesmerizing one-shot heist sequence on the motorway. Unfortunately, the film effectively reaches its climax around the midway point, leaving it to flounder in the remaining time – and it’s a long film, running over two hours. The subplot between Bibi and her loving but concerned family goes nowhere. Another involving Albanian gangsters and a sleazy suitor to Bibi feels like something out of a Belgian Guy Ritchie movie, at odds with the style established beforehand. The film throws all nuance out of the window with the repeated use of heavy-handed symbols and motifs. Gigi’s fear of dogs, for example, contrasts his criminal dishonesty with the supposed ‘honesty of dogs’, and sets up a ridiculous later plot development. Most frustrating is the way the development of the central romance descends into cheesy soap opera melodrama. It feels like the film is trying to produce an emotional wringer, but ultimately the conclusions we reach are hollow.
Thankfully, there are several elements which keep the film engaging to an extent, even with such problematic structural flaws. On the acting front, Schoenaerts is great as always. Gigi perhaps lacks the complexity of his brilliant turn as the bullish farmer in Bullhead, or as much fun as the slimy crook in The Drop, but he’s charismatic, handles the character’s arc and growing decency very well, and nails every pivotal emotional scene. Exarchopoulos is on the whole very good, and exceptional in any scene she shares with Schoenaerts, an alluring and endearing figure we really grow to love. She’s dealt an unenviable hand in the later stages of the film, though, where her character is forced to go through some questionable developments. Everyone else is more or less just a blank face in the proceedings; it’s very much a two-man show. The technical elements are also consistently good throughout, even if the way they are used becomes less and less compelling as the film goes on.
Roskam’s daring as a director is to be applauded regardless of this humble reviewer’s opinion, but he utilized this individuality to far greater effect in his last two features. Racer and the Jailbird gets plenty of things right, but doesn’t quite stick to them throughout. It’s easy to see where this film goes wrong; look no further than Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines for another crime drama which finds something truly special in its opening act, but drops the ball with misguided ambition. It has its fair share of excellent moments, but the grand sum of it is ultimately a disappointment.
Racer and the Jailbird has its UK premiere on October 4th at London Film Festival. Watch the French language teaser trailer below: