Michael R Roskam (director)
130 mins (length)
01 June 2018 (released)
21 May 2018
From the title of this French language movie, you’d be forgiven for imagining a cartoon duo on the run from the law, always getting themselves into sticky situations. But your assumption would be way off. This is a film for adults, as indicated by the very first scene – a child attempting to escape abusive parents is chased down by police and dogs. This is Gigi, the jailbird of the title played by Matthew Schoenaerts, and his story picks up years later. Now a gangster with a sinister talent for robbing banks, Gigi meets a racing driver Bibi, played by Adele Exarchopoulous, and romance blossoms.
What follows has the framework of a love story. The two are immediately smitten, and whilst the inevitable good times roll, dark clouds are most definitely taking shape on the horizon. In the meantime, intimate love scenes are handled with surprising tenderness, and plot surges ahead with the speed of a racing-modified Porsche - not a moment is a pause for thought. Underwritten side characters are left in the dust because what is important here is the relationship blossoming, at least until Gigi’s day job throws the lover’s lives into mayhem. Capitalising on the grittier elements of the genre at this point, writer-director Michael R Roskam relishes the opportunity to insert staggering set pieces. Recalling the controlled chaos of the opening of The Dark Knight, or the heist sequences in The Town, these scenes bring a tension rarely captured on screen, and even more rarely held for such duration.
These sequences are directorial flourishes, however, and whilst Roskam is keen to bring the focus back to the couple, he lets his actors work hard to develop the romance. Schoenaerts brings the same affectionate loyalty he exhibited in The Danish Girl, albeit with a little more cheeky guilt this time. But Exarchopoulous is the one to watch, seizing control of each encounter with a strength more mature actors would struggle to attain. There is an interesting power dynamic here, highlighted but unexplored. Gigi’s masculinity positions him early on as the classic antihero protecting his woman. But it is Bibi who makes the important decisions, dealing single-handedly with their issues whilst Gigi follows like a devoted puppy. Bibi’s power over him is impressive, exemplified in a scene where she interrogates Gigi for the truth about his criminal activities, driving down twisting country roads at a speed that would make Bond sweat.
This is typical of the problem with Roskam’s script; fresh and intriguing character dynamics are introduced and then assumed without any time for exploration or definition. Just as in Robert Zemeckis’s romantic drama Allied, this film’s fatal flaw is in not giving time to the process of falling in love. Their romance in the beginning of the film seems as a whirlwind; passionate and exciting, but sure to burn out quickly. Roskam forces the assumption of deep, lasting love to account for the characters actions, which, unfortunately, means that they never quite ring true. It isn’t as if the crime-romance genre is short of precedents to draw inspiration from – think Natural Born Killers, Wild at Heart, True Romance, Raising Arizona… The list goes on. In each of these couples, there is a strong emotional connection, something pushing them to look past the dubious morality of their actions. Racer and the Jailbird is missing that connection, which may account for why, as Belgian’s entry to the Academy Awards Foreign Language category last year, it never made the shortlist.