Rodeo Review: Daring, Risky Rides On The Fringes Of Society [London Film Festival]

Julia (Julie Ledru) arrives at a house in the suburbs to purchase a motorcycle she found online. She loves what she sees, and clearly knows her stuff, picking up on the bike's minute detailing, and is equally well versed in information like the engine specifics. "I was born with a bike between my legs," she tells the seller. She wants to purchase it, but she needs to test it out first — something that immediately concerns the guy she's buying from. Julia can tell he is uncomfortable, but she knows exactly what she needs to do to put his mind at ease. She tells him that surely he wouldn't buy a motorcycle without trying it first. Julia also offers him the ultimate security, giving the seller her bag, with her passport and all the money to purchase the bike. Somewhat reluctantly, the man agrees to let Julia take the bike for a spin — just to the end of the road and back, she assures him.

Julia takes off to the end of the street, but she does not return, stealing the bike in a surprising move. Surprising to the audience, that is, but not even remotely surprising to Julia. Judging by the look of sheer euphoria on her face, as she rides away at top speed, this was a meticulous, planned-out effort, and the bag she gave to the man was empty. There's also an undeniable feeling that this isn't the first time Julia has stolen a motorcycle — her effort was too expert to be anything but organized crime. There's also a distinct feeling that she's going to do it again.

While I can barely ride a bicycle, let alone something as terrifying as a motorcycle, Julia is a very proficient rider. She's drawn to rodeos — though these rodeos don't have a horse in sight. Instead, in Lola Quivoron's electric debut "Rodeo," these are clandestine gatherings where riders show up to show off their high-octane bikes and pull off daring risky stunts. Notably, everyone who attends these rodeos are men, but Julia has every intention of being a part of this hyper-masculine gang, regardless of her gender. You better believe she's going to do whatever it takes to belong.

High octane stakes

Turns out her best skill is stealing bikes, something that attracts the attention of the gang leader Domino (Sébastian), who rules from prison via facetime. Julia is a firebrand, boldly doing whatever she wants without fear of the consequences — which have hit her hard, as she's no longer welcome at home. As previously mentioned, her gender makes her something of a pariah with the rodeo gang, and the guys frequently make note of the fact she's female. That's something that doesn't seem to mean much to Julia, who goes by the codename Unknown.

None of the gang knows anything about her personal life, and any attempts to flirt with her go ignored. Julia isn't someone who subscribes to the tenets of femininity in any way shape or form, and though it's never made explicit, Julia appears to be non-binary (since that's not confirmed, I'll use she/her pronouns when talking about Julia). It's wonderful to watch Julia straddle the lines between masculinity and femininity, and the only thing that really seems to matter to her is the thrill of the ride.

The energy and excitement that comes with riding is expertly captured by Quivoron's camera. It's frenetic, favoring close-ups and tight framing. The camera has a sense of real urgency but also impatience. There's a real energy to the way "Rodeo" is shot, with a restless camera that elevates what's ultimately a rather repetitive story. Part of that is because we know so little about Julia, who we spend so much time with — almost everyone knows her as Unknown, which tells you an awful lot. Thankfully, Julie Ledru imbues a real presence into a complicated character that's quick to manipulate and quicker to act violently. She's intense, but at times feels vacant and too much of an unknown entity (pardon the pun). The script doesn't do enough to really elevate Julia as a character. There's a lot of detail about her that feels external, but "Rodeo" doesn't take enough time to dive into her interiority.

Riding with purpose

The best opportunity for that comes in Julia's relationship with Domino's wife Ophélie (Antonia Buresi) and her young son Kylian (Cody Schroeder). Ophélie struggles a great deal with her husband being extremely controlling of her and Kylian, even while he's behind bars. It's a suffocating existence, and with Julia comes an opportunity for a bit of freedom, even if it's only temporary. The relationship also greatly benefits Julia as well, as it provides a family unit for her that she sorely lacks.

"Rodeo" is a daring and impressive debut feature that accomplishes something wonderful about movies: it explores a world that few know with a bracing intimacy and genuine respect for the subject. While it typically succeeds, it's thin plot and weak characters outside of Julia, as well as a reliance on repetition, prevent the film from being truly brilliant. The ending also feels frustratingly sudden and tacked on. Still, there's a palpable energy in this promising debut, and I look forward to seeing what Ledru and Quivoron get up to next with great anticipation.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

Rodeo screened as part of the London Film Festival 2022.