Flemish director Michael R. Roskam, whose imposing debut, Bullhead, was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language film category, has called his Racer and the Jailbird (Le fidele) an “amour noir" — an interesting term that suggests that crime and a love story are not only its principal ingredients, but also that one isn’t more important than the other.

After his Dutch-language debut and the English-language Dennis Lehane adaptation The Drop, which was set in Brooklyn, this third feature is mainly in French and set in the bilingual Belgian capital. This is the playground of the bank robber Gigi, played by Roskam regular Matthias Schoenaerts, who falls hard for Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, the breakout from Blue Is the Warmest Color), a race car driver who doesn’t know what the object of her affection really does for a living.

Love stories need good chemistry to be convincing and in that department, Racer and the Jailbird doesn’t disappoint. There’s also a set piece involving a shipping container that’s tossed off a highway bridge so a money transport is blocked below and can be robbed in broad daylight that’s spectacularly staged. But Roskam’s structural choices weaken the overall intensity of the story, while a third-act detour into another genre is simply misguided. Nonetheless, this should do solid business on both sides of the language divide in Belgium, while Roskam will also again represent the country in the foreign-language derby. Neon bought the rights for the U.S., where this will strictly be a niche item.

The first time Gigi, a nickname for Gino, meets Bibi (real name: Benedicte), after she’s completed a tour on the racetrack, he’s very direct: “Do you have a boyfriend?” he wants to know. “If so, I’ll leave you alone.” Clearly, Gigi doesn’t like to waste time or words and he seems to have met his match in Bibi, who simply answers: “No,” and then instructs him to not bring any flowers to their date. Roskam also doesn’t waste any time in the early going, cutting from the couple having the tough-guys version of a meet-cute on a rain-drenched bridge overlooking a drearily gray Brussels to them having sex indoors. In a moment of post-coital bliss, Bibi asks him to tell her a secret he has never told anyone and he confesses he robs banks, which she laughs off as a hilariously unserious answer to her question. Except that it’s the most nakedly honest Gigi has ever been.

The first of the film’s three parts is called Gino and explores his world, which has been compartmentalized to a great extent, keeping his private and professional lives completely separate (he’s officially in the “import/export business”). Bibi’s father, Freddy (Eric De Staercke), who’s very protective of his daughter even though she’s clearly one tough cookie, however, is on to him early on and warns him. “Real men don’t lie,” he says menacingly, telling Gigi to either stop lying or stop doing the things about which he feels the need to lie. The idea that lying is a thing for kids and should be off-limits between adults then becomes an almost excessively recurring motif that implies that love between grown-ups without honesty is impossible.

At one point, Gigi suggests that his addiction to his dangerous job is like the adrenaline rush that Bibi gets when she’s racing. This blunt but effective parallel illustrates both why Gigi doesn’t want to give up his job and why the two daredevils are a match made in heaven. The rest of the first hour is certainly action-packed, as there’s what’s possibly cinema history’s first fully bilingual heist — criminal behavior does not extend to ignoring one of the country’s two languages, clearly — and also the aforementioned set piece with the shipping container. Roskam’s regular cinematographer, Nicolas Karakatsanis, shoots the action with a good eye for spatial relations, even if this is hardly his most painterly work. There’s also an interesting plot development involving Sandra (Nathalie van Tongelen), an acquaintance of Gigi and Bibi, that plays heavily into the closing part of the section during which a landline phone in the middle of an empty room becomes an almost totemic conduit for truth, lies and betrayals.

Indeed, when chapter two, Bibi, starts, so much has happened it feels almost as if you’ve seen an entire feature already. But there’s still a lot more on the menu, with part two kicking off with Gigi in jail (not a surprise, given the English-language title) and the film morphing into a bride-of-an-inmate drama and Bibi deciding she wants to get pregnant so Gigi will wait for her. The tone becomes more subdued, the stakes are lower — if, minus Gigi’s now-revealed lying, they are so perfect for each other, surely they’ll end up together? — and because the lovers are separated and criminal behavior is almost absent, the crackling tension of part one dissolves into more of a slow burn. Rather oddly, there are also parts here that focus on Gino alone, so the section’s name is a bit of misnomer as well, suggesting the structural division is more artificial than organic. 

Roskam co-wrote the screenplay with French screenwriters Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, who wrote Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, in which Schoenaerts also starred. They have a melodramatic twist in store for part three that turns Racer into something else yet again and by then, the shape-shifting nature of the story has become tiring rather than exciting or innovative and it’s hard to see how this part connects to the cocksure, firecracker characters seen at the start.

Whereas Audiard’s works, which also include the visceral prison drama A Prophet, have a more expressionistic bent that allows the emotional intensity of the performers to overpower any possible weaknesses in the screenplay, Roskam’s films are more narrative-driven and in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Schoenaerts is his usual, intense self, Exarchopoulos has here found her best role since Blue and there’s no denying their chemistry is wild. But their characters become prisoners of the many twists and turns of the narrative instead of rising above it; their personalities aren’t revealed through the story so much as they are constrained by it.

Production companies: Savage Film, Stone Angels, Eyeworks Film & TV Drama, Wild Bunch, Pathe, Frakas Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Subla
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adele Exarchopoulos, Eric De Staercke, Jean-Benoit Ugeux, Nabil Missoumi, Thomas Coumans, Nathalie van Tongelen, Fabien Magry, Sam Louwyck 
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Screenwriters: Michael R. Roskam, Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre
Producers: Bart Van Langendonck, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Executive producers: Xavier Rombaut, Alexandre Chalanset
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Costume designer: Kristin Van Passel
Editor: Alain Dessauvage
Music: Raf Keunen
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Sales: Wild Bunch

In French, Dutch, Albanian
130 minutes