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Racer and the Jailbird (2017)
Le Fidèle

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam

4 stars

First seen in an introductory sequence as a child being betrayed to the cops by his brutish, dog-wielding dad, Gino/Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a handsome charmer with puppy-dog eyes, which is ironic since he’s terrified of dogs. Introduced to the gorgeous Bénédicte/Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos) he asks her out, and she agrees. She’s a semi-professional racing driver, and he claims to be in the car import-export business. Nevertheless on their first date, playing the “Tell me your greatest secret” game, he claims to be a bank-robber.

Unfortunately for both of them, this turns out to be true.

What follows is a story of doomed love, although “doomed” hardly does justice to the level of damage that’s on show here. Told in three chapters, we see first his fall, then hers, and finally a lengthy conclusion that functions as coda-cum-calvary.

If it sounds miserable, suspend your judgement. To be sure, there are times when it is tough to watch. But what redeems it almost totally is the portrayal of the growing love between the two main characters, and much of the the credit for this must go to Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos, whose performances (particularly Schoenaerts’s) are very affecting.

Also impressive is the sympathetic portrayal of Bibi’s family: flawed but loving, and believable in their reactions to her situation.

There are a few gripes: the set-piece heist towards the middle of the movie is both too complex and too well-executed to be entirely credible; and it’s somewhat repetitive. The kennel scene towards the end is just a little too unlikely; and there is something maybe a little repugnant about making a hero (even a tragic one) of someone with so much blood on his hands. But the memory that lingers is not of these, but of the two central performances.

Excellent direction from Michaël Roskam, who used Schoenaerts to good effect in 2014’s The Drop; and a strong but unobtrusive soundtrack from Raf Keunen.

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