At the start of director Michaël Roskam’s Belgian romance “Racer and the Jailbird,” a slick, handsome thief named Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) becomes smitten with a cool, sexy race car driver named Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The two fall immediately into an affair so passionate and all-consuming that at first she barely cares that he’s hedging about what he does for a living.
Co-written by Roskam with Noé Debré and frequent Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain, “Racer and the Jailbird” is divided into three sections. In the first, Gigi’s infatuation with Bibi inadvertently leads to him getting thrown in prison. In the second, the couple struggles as they make plans for a life after incarceration.
The overwrought narrative structure and the situation it builds too are both a bit heavy-footed for a movie that in its first hour has more pep. That said, “Racer and the Jailbird” remains absorbing throughout, thanks primarily to the two leads, who are both almost frighteningly believable as lovers willing to risk everything to stay together.
Ultimately, the story’s structured like a grand theatrical tragedy for a reason. The film takes its time to give a better sense of what Gigi and Bibi feel bound to — so that we understand everything they overcome to keep returning to each other’s arms.
‘Racer and the Jailbird’
In French with English subtitles
Rating: R, for some strong sexuality, nudity, violence and for language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West L.A.