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Non-Review Review: Le Fidèle (The Racer and the Jailbird)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

The Racer and the Jailbird is certainly a very strange film, and not in a particularly interesting way.

Running two hours and ten minutes, The Racer and the Jailbird is essentially two very different films stitched together. Michaël R. Roskam‘s third feature-length film is a curious hybrid, a passable eighty-minute Heat knock-off followed by an interminable European Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week. How stereotypical European, you ask? So European that it features a completely earnest reading of the line, “I am not pregnant with new life, but with death.” it is kind of brilliant, in its own ways. Many writers spend their lives in search of prose that purple.

To be fair, there is something interesting in the premise of The Racer and the Jailbird, and in its eventual narrative substitution. There is something be said for setting up a premise and then swerving dramatically to upset an audience’s expectations, to catch them off-guard by establishing a familiar set of genre elements and then twisting sharply in an unexpected direction. However, these sharp turns demand a very precise set of skills, including complete mastery of tone and narrative.

The Racer and the Jailbird lacks that control, and so misses the turn, spinning out of control and flipping dramatically before ending up as a mangled heap by the side of the road.

The basic set-up for The Racer and the Jailbird is familiar, but effective. Bibi Delhany is a racing car driver, one of the best in the world. Gigi Vanoirbeek is a mysterious gentleman who claims to be in the “import/export” business. The two strike up a flirtation, and then a romance. Bibi finds herself drawn into Gigi’s web, discovering that her lover is far more complicated and conflicted than he originally appears. When she asks him to confess his darkest secret, he responds, “I am a gangster and I rob banks.” This turns out to be the truth.

This premise is fairly boilerplate. Gigi is a thief who has a code of honour, as demonstrated by a story from his childhood where he got sent back to juvenile detention following his attempt to make reparations to a man from whom he had stolen. Similarly, the film repeatedly implies that Gigi is as much a mystery to himself as to Bibi, with the character frequently and repeatedly meditating upon why people (himself included) behave in the manner that they do. Bibi initially seems willfully blind to what Gigi does in his spare time, but eventually their world is brought crashing down.

None of this is especially innovative on its own terms. After all, the romance between Bibi and Gigi feels very much like one small subplot woven through the tapestry that was Heat. Of course, Michael Mann’s crime epic casts such a long shadow that every bank robbery film seems indebted to it, but The Racer and the Jailbird invites the comparisons. Michaël R. Roskam‘s direction is confident during the first half of the film, particularly during a number of long takes during particularly impressive set pieces. Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos make a charmingly conflicted couple.

However, The Racer and the Jailbird makes a sharp shift in gears around the midpoint. This is certainly a daring and provocative move, but it can work. Setting up one movie only to deliver another is a clever way of catching the audience off-guard. When executed well, the manoeuvre feels deft and confident; the work of an assured creative hand. As with a lot of cinema, it is an act of manipulation. The key is ensuring that the audience never feels the manipulation. Clint Eastwood managed this deft mid-movie switch particularly well in Million Dollar Baby.

The Racer and the Jailbird is nowhere near as effective in managing its midpoint transition. The movie seems to end and start over, reaching a logical endpoint and then continuing indefinitely. There is a certain logic in the transition, in shifting from a conventional robbery thriller into an intimate psychological drama about the consequences of the protagonists’ actions, but The Racer and the Jailbird suffers from a lack of clear structured causation. The second half of The Racer and the Jailbird is driven by events that just happen for no greater reason than to extend the film.

There is, to be fair, something interesting in the premise and in the film’s commitment to its premise. However, the key to pulling off a sudden shift like this is an interesting hook. In order to retain the audience’s attention and goodwill after such a sharp pivot, a film needs to ensure that its second story is at least as compelling and engaging as the first. The Racer and the Jailbird never seems particularly engaged with the more personal drama unfolding in its second half, with its attempts at introspection seeming shallow and generic.

The closest that the film comes to an insight about its central characters is that the delineation between the pair might not be as clear as it initially appeared. With her day job driving fast cars in competitive tournaments, Bibi would initially seem to be “the racer.” With his shady past and criminal activities, Gigi is obviously “the jailbird.” However, the film suggests that perhaps their roles are not as easily defined. Perhaps Bibi is trapped in her relationship to Gigi, a “jailbird” to her own love. Perhaps Gigi is constantly moving, a “racer” running away from something.

However, the film never quite digs into this potentially intriguing character dynamic. Instead, the psychology in The Racer and the Jailbird feels rudimentary. Gigi may not understand people, but neither he nor Bibi are ever particularly difficult to understand. The film returns to certain images and motifs to reinforce its core themes, in particular the visceral reaction that dogs seem to have towards Gigi. It is a very obvious thematic element, and The Racer and the Jailbird at one point even tries to translate “dogs don’t like Gigi” from a clumsy thematic point into an awkward plot point.

There is even a sense that The Racer and the Jailbird is not committed to its own sudden shift. The films final fifteen minutes takes another sharp turn back into the thriller trappings that defined the first eighty minutes, complete with two rushed action sequences that seem jarring and disorienting in the context of the heightened emotions of the second half. There is a sense that The Racer and the Jailbird does not trust its second-half melodrama to carry the film home, and so doubles back on itself rather hastily. This reversal-of-the-earlier-reversal only further muddles the film.

The Racer and the Jailbird is an interesting genre hybrid, but a clumsy and unsuccessful one.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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