Cinematic offerings from Belgium tend to revolve around hard-hitting social realism, whether it’s the celebrated work of the Dardenne Brothers or the films of Felix Van Groeningen. But Michaël R. Roskam is more entranced by the American genre cinema of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann. His debut Bullhead was a drama about illegal hormone trading in a rural farming community, before he headed to America for 2014’s The Drop, an adaptation of crime author Dennis Lehane’s short story Animal Rescue.
His third movie, Racer and the Jailbird (the original title is Le Fidèle), brings him back to his native Belgium for another tale set on the wrong side of the law. His lucky totem Matthias Schoenaerts, who has starred in each of his films to date, plays Gigi, a member of a successful pro-heist crew. One day, he meets Bibi, a female race car driver (Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s Adèle Exarchopoulos). Gradually, they fall for each other, but Bibi has no idea of her partner’s criminal life.
It’s no shock to learn that Bibi will discover what he does or that Gigi – who is desperate to quit his illegal existence – gets drawn back in for one final job. These are staples of the heist genre, but Roskam plays with the tropes with intriguing results. If most crime films see criminals walk out on their relationships, this is much more a film about undying love where criminal intent lurks in the background. Bibi and Gigi are as bonded as Bonnie and Clyde in their own way.
Exarchopoulos is excellent as the adrenaline-junkie girl who eventually gets addicted to love. Her chemistry with the muscular Schoenaerts crackles; this is one sexy combination. Likewise, Roskam has enormous fun staging the mechanics of the gang’s heist, a motorway set piece that is every bit as thrilling as the bank robbery in Mann’s touchstone Heat. Yet this is not a film where crime pays. Roskam never romanticises this nefarious world or his law-breaking lovers. Instead he offers up a desperately bleak third act where obsession only brings torment and despair.
Racer and the Jailbird opens on 13 July. For more details, visit Thunderbird Releasing.
1. All images stills from The Racer and the Jailbird. Courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.