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Rodeo-4-© CG CINEMA
Rodeo, 2023© CG Cinéma

Rodeo: this gnarly biker heist-thriller is like a feminist Fast & Furious

Lola Quivoron discusses their new film, which follows Julie as she enters a male-heavy environment of a biker gang who fund their lifestyle with larceny

“For me, there was a gap in a lot of Fast & Furious movies and heist movies in general,” says the French filmmaker Lola Quivoron. “I dreamed about this female character, Julia, who’s in between genders, in between life and death, in between dreams and reality. She’s a reinvention of gender stereotypes, mixed with who I am, transfeminist essays, and, of course, Julie Ledru.”

Julie, as played by Ledru, is the freewheeling lead of Rodeo, a gnarly, French-language crime-thriller written and directed by Quivoron. With Mathieu Lardot (a stunt performer on Mission: Impossible – Fallout) as a stunt coordinator, Quivoron’s debut feature is a revved-up plunge into the Parisian underworld of illegal dirt-bike racing, pressing the camera so close to the vehicular action you may feel dizzy from the fumes. Operating on a low budget (all shot for under a million Euros, according to Quivoron), the motorbike trickery also possesses more in-your-face, flirting-with-danger heft than a gravity-defying, CGI-enhanced stunt by Vin Diesel.

“Julia’s like a river,” says Quivoron, speaking to me during a trip to London in March. “You can’t stop a river. Because she’s the only girl, she fights against the male gaze – both a sexual and racial gaze – and fights against the oppression. She’s in movement the whole film because, for me, that’s freedom.”

For most of Rodeo, the audience hops alongside Julie as she enters a male-heavy environment of a biker gang who fund their lifestyle with larceny. To fit in, Julie thus insists she has “balls”, she outdoes the guys at shit-talking, and, when it comes to the road, she claims to have been born with a bike between her legs. It’s a far cry from the Fast & Furious franchise, in which a recurring motif is of men hopping into vehicles while women whoop and cheer to the side in their underwear.

Moreover, much of Julia’s backstory came straight from Ledru, a first-time actor fully attuned with the subject matter. For instance, when Abra, on the verge of bleeding to death, initially refuses Julia’s help due to potential emasculation, it’s taken from Ledru’s own experiences. Elsewhere, the young star demonstrates movie-star qualities when simply riding off into the distance.

In fact, Julia’s specialty is hopping onto someone else’s vehicle and speeding off until she’s out of sight. After thieving a bike, Julia integrates herself into a criminal organisation led by Domino (Sébastien Schroeder), a jailed boss who, via FaceTime from his cell, allows Julia to live in their garage. In return, Julia receives a makeover to highlight traditional feminine qualities; once potential sellers at their home allow a transformed Julie to test out their vehicle, she simply never returns.

“I wanted the film to be an action movie but with an inner voice,” says Quivoron. “Mathieu Lardot created the space to let the riders be free. We were constantly adapting, and trying to capture them with a documentary approach.” Lardot, whose credits range from Jason Bourne to James Bond, insisted that stunt doubles were used for the climactic sequence. “But Julie rides all the bikes in the movie. She doesn’t have any doubles to ride the motorcycle.”

Quivoron has spent close to a decade researching the world of motocross racing. In 2016, the director’s 25-minute short, Dreaming of Baltimore, also followed a dirt bike rider, albeit a male one named Akro. For Rodéo, Quivoron saw an opportunity to subvert gender stereotypes. “For pronouns, I can choose today to use ‘they’, but maybe tomorrow I would prefer ‘he’ or ‘she’,” says Quivoron, who identifies as non-binary. “It depends on the moment.”

The one professional actor amongst the cast is Quivoron’s long-term partner, Antonia Buresi, a credited cowriter who plays the role of Domino’s wife, Ophélie. Despite Julia forming an early bond with Kaïs (Yannis Lafki), she strikes up a more emotional kinship with Ophélie, a relationship that’s cemented by hopping onto a bike together. “When you see a girl in a movie, you expect that she’ll make love to the guy,” Quivoron says. “I wanted to play with these expectations.”

For the shoot, only Buresi and Ledru were allowed to read the script. Thus if Rodéo feels true to the moment, that’s because it is. To understand the riders’ movements, Quivoron spent years understanding their philosophy and taking photographs. “I’ve never stopped observing their community and solidarity,” the director says. “Rodéo was written on the road with them. Because their practice was so unknown, they were so excited to show off and be recognised as athletes. But now they’re more enclosed.”

Quivoron is in the midst of writing two possible follow-up features. One is a mob movie inspired by a few of the director’s relatives, the other involves a “market with a lot of corruption in it”. Which makes me wonder: does Quivoron ever come up with ideas while riding a motorcycle? “They allowed me to ride a dirt bike but I don’t have one myself because they’re so expensive. But I have a bicycle, and during the last steps of the writing, I would go to Corsica, in front of the mountains, to experience this huge part of nature.”

In fact, many dirt-bike riders consider hitting the road to be a form of meditation, even if it’s while performing the trick of raising one wheel as high up into the air as possible. If anything, that’s actually the ideal position. “When Abra explains to Julia how to lift the dirt bike, he’s like a sage. That’s why, in the film, he becomes a ghost, because he has a connection with life and death, and is playing with this equilibrium. It’s all about gravity, and how to escape gravity. People want to escape.”

Quivoron acrobatically demonstrates, on a chair, what’s known as the “superman trick” – it involves stretching both arms forward like Leo in Titanic, sticking one leg back as far as possible, and keeping the other on the seat. “It’s almost flying.” So performing an outrageous stunt on a motorbike can be a bit like a yoga position if you know what you’re doing? “For sure,” the director says. “Lifting the wheel is a way to be on the line between life and death. It’s like facing death every time, and you have to not be scared of that. That creates a good rider.”

Rodéo is in UK cinemas and exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema now