When you’re making a dramatic love story that stars actors as great-looking and sexy and talented as Matthias Schoenaerts and Adele Exarchopoulos (though mon Dieu, those last names! The two sound about as sexy as post-structuralist Marxist academics), the success of the movie is going to hinge on an essential question: How compelling are the obstacles?
In “Racer and the Jailbird,” Bénédicte (Exarchopoulos), known as Bibi , is a professional race-car driver, and though the film tries to showcase her sexuality in that role with an enlightened lack of exoticism, it can’t resist playing it both ways: When Bibi first takes off her helmet and bulky racer’s uniform, revealing the comely feminine presence beneath, the scene is shot and edited to make you go, “Wow, I didn’t expect that!” Maybe that’s because the audience is taking in the moment through the eyes of Gino (Schoenaerts), known as Gigi, who is instantly smitten.
He ambles over to Bibi and chats her up, which she of course resists. But his approach is so cocky yet unpressured — and he himself is such a dish — that she spends no more than 20 seconds playing hard to get. She does, however, issue a romantic edict: “No flowers.” It’s a line that will resonate with viewers based on how old they are — i.e., whether they think that a man bringing flowers is an outdated gesture or a timeless one.
Gigi obeys the edict, because despite his burly physique he’s no caveman. He is tender, intelligent, fun-loving, gracious, and, at just the right moments, a little bit gruff in that Gallic-stud way. And so they fall in love. He takes her to a boisterous restaurant dinner to meet his friends, and they’re a roughhousing lot, big on manly hugs — which seems par for the course in Belgium. Except that this gang truly is a gang. They’re thieves, who specialize in intricately executed heists that the film presents with just enough car-scudding realism to be more violent and disruptive than the ones in heist movies. The key difference is that Michaël R. Roskam, the Belgian director of “Racer and the Jailbird,” understands that real criminality isn’t a lark; it grows out of wounds.
Gigi, as we see in the opening flashback, grew up a desolate delinquent, hanging with these same pals, and they’re the closest thing to a family he has. He’s a robber because that’s how he evolved. Before he knew better. The nature of the profession is that it requires secrecy, so Gigi doesn’t — can’t — tell his new love about what he does and who he is. (At one point, he tells her in a way that’s so brazenly up-front it sounds like he’s joking, and that’s how she takes it.) Bibi, though, can tell he’s hiding something (he won’t even invite her to his place), and it starts to eat away at her.
In “Racer and the Jailbird,” that’s the “good” dramatic obstacle — the compelling one — because it sets up a tense psychological situation: Can a healthy romance grow and form, like a pearl, round the sandy kernel of a lie? (Probably not.) But if Gigi reveals all to Bibi, will he just end up chasing her away? (Maybe so.) Roskam has made several other ambitious underworld films (notably the terrific Brooklyn thriller “The Drop,” starring Tom Hardy), and it feels cleansing, after so much deadening American genre junk, to see a European movie make it look like the most natural thing in the world to regard a criminal as a vulnerable human being.
Schoenaerts, as always, is a fearless actor who refuses to phone in a single moment, and Exarchopoulos convinces you that Bibi is Gigi’s matching alpha mate. Their erotic chemistry is palpable, but what’s most alluring about this actress, as she demonstrated in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” is the pensive, saddened emotional rigor that lurks behind her sensual pout. She communicates a very French idea: that to fall in love is to already begin to see your heart break.
Roskam stages a spectacular heist along a stretch of freeway that kicks off with a shipping car being shoved off a bridge, so that it crashes down and blocks traffic, and the gang can whip out their machine guns. But the robbery devolves into a mess, and at that point it isn’t just the gang that falls apart — it’s the movie. Gigi gets caught and convicted, which we knew would happen (since it’s right there in the title), and Bibi refuses to cut him loose; she still wants to get pregnant by him (and does). Suddenly, the film has a new obstacle: How do you sustain a relationship when one partner is in prison? That’s not a bad subject — Ava DuVernay worked wonders with it in her breakthrough 2012 drama “Middle of Nowhere” — but in “Racer and the Jailbird,” Gigi’s incarceration is the wrong kind of obstacle. For the entire second half, it seems to choke off the film’s dramatic possibilities.
Roskam appears to know that, since he starts to lard the action with manipulative twists, including one doozy that hinges on a serious illness. (Really? This movie turns into a disease-of-the-week special? Yes, it does.) The real trouble, however, is that the whole thing becomes drenched in a kind of downbeat sentimental martyrdom that feels oppressively old-fashioned and moribund. Bibi showed her fresh contempo spirit when she said, “No flowers.” But in “Racer and the Jailbird,” Roskam winds up piling on the hearts and flowers. And the romantic-doom clichés.