“I’m a gangster. I rob bank,” says Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) to Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos) early in La Fidèle, which is coming to a theater near you as Racer and the Jailbird, but that’s such an inapt retitling. It’s like some throwaway Burt Reynolds thing from the ‘70s that only Quentin Tarantino remembers, so I’m going to conscientiously object to calling it that for the rest of this review, so consider those cards out on the table early. Anyway, Bibi asks Gigi what his darkest secret is, that’s what he says, and she laughs; but he only half-smiles, grimly, and even though we haven’t seen Gigi rob any banks yet, we know it’s true. When we actually do see him rob a bank, it feels anticlimactic.
For its first act (the film is explicitly divided into three of them), Michaël Roskam’s La Fidèle is all lovely pulp, just self-serious enough to be enjoyable as pulp, without feeling like you have to do so ironically, while not being so self-serious that you can’t just love it for precisely what it is. That American title is, at least, accurate; Bibi is a racecar driver, you see, and its after one of her laps at the track that she meets Gigi. The connection is instant: the fact that it blows right past seduction into love is a clue that pulp isn’t all there is to La Fidèle.
The next clue that there’s more to the picture is not what happens – because, come on, you know they’re not getting away scot-free from that one last heist (which, I should mention, is a heck of a heist). It’s when it happens – at the end of that first act, not as or near the film’s thrilling conclusion. That’s because La Fidèle is reaching for something more than just pulp – or at least, more than one kind of pulp. Without spoiling anything (though plot twists per se are not La Fidèle’s raison d’être), it’s that willingness to turn your expectations inside out in ways both big and subtle, while still hewing to genre, that makes for such a distinct experience.
That’s not to say a perfect one. La Fidèle is just plain too long, telling in 130 minutes what could and should have been told in 100, tops. Some major elements seem a little too tacked on or wedged in for allegorical or by-the-book plot or character development purposes, including, critically, Gigi’s cynophobia. And some things are just disorienting for an American audience; specifically, the bananas leniency of the Belgian justice system, which apparently not only gives cop-killers a 15 year sentence but gives them both conjugal visits and routine furloughs.
But what it does it does too exceptionally well. Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos have just the right chemistry, selling us not just on lust but commitment, dedication. Certain characters could have easily been made into quick types or arbitrary obstacles (especially Bibi’s father [Eric De Staercke] and the prison warden [Sam Louwyck]), who instead subvert our expectations and provide measured wisdom instead. Cinematographic and directorial decisions consistently nail it, including and especially the film’s extended final sequence, swaggering masterfully from subverting to thrilling to hypnotic to heartbreaking. It front-and-centers everyday but distinctly modern struggles, like miscarriage and infertility, not oft-represented on-screen, especially not in genre flicks. And it’s genuinely and refreshingly original in all the right ways. There are a handful too many moments when La Fidèle sags or snags to call it great, but when its firing on all cylinders, it’s blazing.