Michael R. Roskam's The Racer and the Jailbird is a kind of contemporary Shakespearean romantic tragedy, with the Flemish as the Montagues and the wealthy French as the Capulets. Romeo and Juliet tales of star-crossed lovers from different worlds are timeless, for sure, but this one, about a rich young woman who drives race cars and inexplicably falls in love with a bank robber with a heart of gold, never reveals its why now? or raison d'etre.
Matthias Schoenaerts plays Gigi, a Flemish gangster who was driven to crime by a poor upbringing and churlish friends. He meets young Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos) after she emerges from a race car, takes off her helmet and shakes out her hair like some motorsport angel of light. Gigi asks Bibi for a date in exactly two weeks. And Bibi asks that Gigi not bring her flowers, signifying that she's a "cool girl" who can drive cars real fast and take shots and definitely won't nag when Gigi disappears for a week on a bank job.
Bibi is in for a treat if she's attracted to misery, because not a single thing that happens after this first date could ever be considered the least bit happy. This is melodrama, after all, but borderline boring melodrama, painting over scenes of potentially high tension with blase realism. Still, Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos exhibit the kind of empathetic, in-sync performances that legitimize onscreen romances, almost selling why Bibi would throw her life away to be with a man who incessantly lies to her. Had Roskam focused more fully on these two, the narrative might not have gotten stuck in the mud of confusing and unnecessary side plots.