Racer and the Jailbird, directed by Belgian Michaël R. Roskam, opens with young Gino escaping his guardians’ home and angry dogs through wire and running through a Belgian trailer park. The animal has left the cage.
As a grown man, Gino (Matthias Schoenhaerts), who we now call Gigi, robs banks, steals from the rich and is part of a sophisticated criminal network. He and his lifelong friends work together, and they’re good at their job.
The interest in a particular banker brings him to a race car circuit where he meets gorgeous Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a racer from a wealthy family who lives in a large modern apartment and abides by the law, paying her fines for speeding if necessary. It is love at first sight, and they fall happily in love.
Bibi becomes the only person that Gigi really trusts. However, as she is driving him around in her Porsche at high speed one day, we see his fear. When he drives himself through life-threatening criminal activity, he is just fine – but in someone else’s car, he loses control. During an argument between the two, as Bibi calls him out on his lies, she complains that he doesn’t even trust dogs, who she calls the most truthful beings.
One day, after one of Gigi’s operations kills a policeman, he is sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Bibi’s commitment to him never ceases and while fighting for their love, her body develops the worse illness of all. In her despair, all she can do is help plan for at least some comfort for when Gigi leaves prison, and she finds no other choice but associating with the prison mafia. Bibi’s passing had already been subtly announced when her brother reminds her of their deceased mother’s endless willingness to put others before her.
The two lead actors are what I call Bêtes de l’écran (beasts of the screen). In French, one calls an excellent stage actor a “Bête de scène”. For Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos, their talent lends itself perfectly to the screen. The latter’s language style and maturity despite her youthful facial features light up any scene, and the former’s willingness to go to the darkest places, taking his time and showing a child’s vulnerability in a strong man’s body is continually striking, as it was in Disorder. The two together have created an electric chemistry that we regret having to see end in this story.
I also really enjoyed the bilingualism of this film, with characters switching between French and Flemish. It brings naturalism to these people’s lives and we are reminded of the historical importance but also perhaps the rivalry between the two languages.
Racer and the Jailbird is a thrilling drama as well as a study of the lengths one goes to for love, even if it means leaving behind one’s principles and running towards danger. The driving scenes are rousing, and the central performances delightful.