53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #17: “The Racer and the Jailbird” (Belgium)

“The Racer and the Jailbird” (Belgium)
Directed by Michael R. Roskam

fideleWhat happens when you take a great director who introduced us to a great actor through their collaboration in a brilliant (and Oscar-nommed) film six years ago, and give him a lot more money for a two+ hour sweeping romance that includes the indie darling of all indie darlings from a brilliant (and Golden Globe-nommed) film?!

Apparently nothing good.

There was, perhaps, not a film I was more excited about in this year’s fest than ‘Racer”. If you’ve not seen director, Michael Roskam’s “Bullhead”, you’re missing out on phenomenal cinema. In that film, Americans met Matthias Schoenaerts for the first time. A ball of pent-up rage and devastating good looks, he literally blows the screen up in that complex and emotionally affecting film. How “Bullhead” isn’t mentioned as one of the great foreign language films has always amazed me. And then there’s Adèle Exarchopoulos, the young actor who blew you away in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”. Earnest, impossible to keep your eyes off of, she added absolute earnestness, innocence and honesty to one of the most erotic performances of this decade. But, y’know, sum of the whole doesn’t equal the parts yadda yadda yadda…

Yet many of those parts are terrific. I’m sure, on paper, the story felt perfectly suited for cinema. The first act is intense, exciting, well-structured and curious, introducing us, as it does, to the world of a grand prix racer’s family (Exarchopoulos), and a mysterious auto import/export businessman (Schoenaerts) who sweeps her off her feet in a whirlwind romance. You truly feel you’re about to witness the next “Thomas Crown Affair”. So far so good, right? Unfortunately, the more their romance progresses, the less you care, and after about ninety minutes, you have already looked at your watch a few dozen times.

It’s a gorgeous film. Roskam knows his way around the underbelly of society (no matter the economic level). Framing, lighting, movement…there is an emotional quotient in each setup that has nothing to do with the dialogue or the action (with great help from Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography) – it just is. On that level, “Racer” is a complete success. Your eyes never get bored. Just your attention levels, because the script would have been much better suited to a mini-series. It’s long, meandering, and tackles WAAAAAY too much in terms of character progression and passage of time. Or, maybe he just couldn’t cut enough out of it. Either way, zzzzzzzz.

But don’t blame the messengers. The cast is uniformly terrific. Roskam knows how to juggle dozens of important characters, even in support of one or two. And he’s assembled great character players to communicate his story. It goes without saying that Schoenaerts is terrific, he always is, even in minor roles that sublimate his intensity (like his wasted turn in “Danish Girl”). And Exarchopoulos, while overmatched by the emotional stakes Roskam asks of her in the film’s final (and brutal) act, she perfectly plays the insider-turned-outsider trying to connect with her beau’s childhood crew. In terms of the supporting cast, no other actors stand out as better than any other, but there are no weak performances (although it’s equally possible that I don’t understand French or Flemish well enough to discern the bad from the good).

Not surprisingly, “Racer and the Jailbird” has been put forth as Belgium’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. It’s director has already been nominated once before and it has incredibly high film IQ in its performers. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it has a distinct Hollywood feel about it. Unfortunately, beginning to end, it’s just not a very good film. All that said, if you like beautiful people and beautiful pictures, and can stand not being terribly invested (re: bored), you could do worse (which, I’m aware, is not a glowing recommendation).


No English-subbed trailer, so here is the opening scene…

Written on 10/29/2017

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