Racer And The Jailbird (Le Fidèle)

France/Belgium (2017) Dir. Michaël R. Roskam

Is it worth falling in love? I know you can’t control who you fall in love (or so they say) with but surely, when you know that person is a wrong ‘un then common sense would dictate you get away from them sharpish, right? But it seems, for some, this isn’t quite so simple.

Bénédicte “Bibi” Delhany (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a young racing driver for the company run by her father Freddy (Eric De Staercke). After one meet, Bibi is introduced to Gino “Gigi” Vanoirbeek (Matthias Schoenaerts), who claims to be in the car import and export business, and they hit it off. However, Gigi wasn’t being truthful about his occupation – he is in fact a career criminal and his next victim is a banker at a party Freddy holds.

When asked to reveal a secret about each other one night, Gigi tells the truth about his criminal life but Bibi laughs at the idea. However when Gigi starts putting his jobs over spending time with Bibi she learns he was telling the truth, and with Gigi realising he is in love with Bibi, he decides to quit, only to be persuaded to do one more job that will set him up for life. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan.

Having made his mark with the powerful debut Bullhead then dipping his toes in the vast waters of Hollywood with The Drop, Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam moves closer to home with this French co-production, described as a Roma Noir due to its tempting mix of crime thriller and tragic romantic drama. Depending on what floats your boat, the balance between the two will either delight or disappoint.

Roskam sets out to offer something different by putting Bibi behind the wheel of the racing car and not Gigi as many might expect, and it is not much of a spoiler to remark at how Bibi essentially remains the stronger of the two throughout. This doesn’t reduce Gigi to the status of resident wimp however, but he does go on a journey that sees his carefree criminal life and priorities change as his feelings for Bibi grow. 

It’s not a soppy as that though, and Roskam is careful to let the relationship become a world of discovery for both parties, although for expedience sake, the dating part is skipped and they end up in bed within the minutes of meeting. The sex scenes are brief but curiously framed in that they involve Gigi rutting away on Bibi as the alpha male in charge, which conflicts with the twist in the gender roles.

A criminal since his junior days as the flashback prologue shows, along with establishing his fear of dogs, Gigi and his pals have become a well oiled machine in executing their heists. The bank robbery occurs while Bibi believes Gigi is in Poland picking up some new cars, but when he gets accidentally whacked in the face Gigi has to explain his black eye to Bibi.   

But the romance continues, hitting a minor road bump when Gigi is called to choose between Bibi and the biggest job of the gang’s career, an audacious heist on a money van complete with police escort on a busy motorway. It’s another brilliantly planned hit executed with literal military precision but still, the killing of a cop and a booby-trapped case throws a spanner in the works, as does a superb twist regarding on the supporting characters that will catch everyone out.

Unfortunately, this is the peak of originality of the script as the conflict for Gigi between going clean for love and the one last job testifies, a staple of the crime drama since time immemorial. The second part of the film focuses on Bibi’s surviving the fallout from this, having not given up on Gigi despite it being the sensible thing to do, going to extreme lengths to give him a reason to keep his nose clean.

Not every cliché is ticked off here but enough to figure out how things progress, but Roskam at least keeps up the intensity up and the dynamic of Bibi being emotionally robust and Gigi succumbing to his hitherto latent softer side. Some heartbreaking news and the folly of his natural instinct for self-preservation force Gigi to accept responsibility for his actions.

There is no denying Roskam can deliver a film with grittiness and panache, and through his two excellent leads presents a couple whose love is depicted as genuine and not just a wishy-washy cinematic facsimile. It is not even that the story is rife with plot beats and rhythms featured in numerous other films – the biggest issue is that it didn’t need to be 130 minutes long.

Putting aside the swiftness of the central coupling, this is a story that needed to be told at a brisker pace, and even distractions like the sex scenes and the very few moments of Bibi in her racing car add little to the experience. Roskam makes some of the elements work in symbolising character traits, like Bibi always in control of the driving, yet the padding is painfully evident, and with subplots bearing no fruit and an obtuse ending, a streamlining of the script would have improved this film considerably.

Despite baring all emotionally (and literally) there are still facets about Bibi that are a mystery, but she remains a compelling character thanks to Adèle Exarchopoulos. Like Bibi she is the dominant force of this film, defying her youthful looks by commanding every scene with her magnetic presence. Matthias Schoenaerts might be older but his willingness to make Gigi vulnerable helps make the pairing believable.

The original French title of Racer And The Jailbird is The Faithful which is more accurate and honest in selling what this film is about. There is a good film here with a great cast, but sadly, with flab favoured over focus, it never meets the expectations engendered by the talent involved.