From the opening moments of her debut feature, Lola Quivoron is uninterested in the palatable and peaceful. Before characters, conflict, or setting is introduced, the camera is tight and personal on Julia (Julie Ledru) and a group of male companions who are intent on stopping her departure with words and (largely gentle) force.
Julia, however, is not a gentle presence, lashing out verbally and physically at her comrades with almost animalistic fury. While circumstances are soon revealed, and Julia’s friendships and history unfold, the resulting narrative around Julia’s passion for ‘rodeos’ – male-dominated motorcycle stunt competitions and races – and the illicit dealings taking place on the side – is delivered with the same unapologetic ferocity.
RODEO is a messy first feature in the best possible way. Its energy is relentless; Julia’s passion for the freedom the bikes bring her is all-encompassing, even if the physical and psychological demands made of her are emotionally distancing, too brutal to be infectious. But the fierce commitment of Julie Ledru – her taut physicality bringing Julia’s sharp edges and spiky contrarianism to fully-realised life – is magnetic even in RODEO’s more scattershot thematic and dramatic structure. Ledru’s Julia has much in common with Agathe Rouselle’s Alexia; while TITANE is less rooted in reality, the aggressive gender nonconformity of Julia Ducournau’s protagonist sings with a similar sense of freedom and self-actualisation.
As she forces and finds her way into this dangerous world, Julia finds her clique amid a few chance encounters and a shocking crime. The characters around her are not fleshed out with the same fervour. Still, there is a subversive joy in watching her knowingly lull men into false senses of security before blazing off with their motorbikes – hair flying, middle finger extended. This free-spirited volatility finds an immediate foil in the backroom deals and potentially deadly secrecy as a heist plot emerges – a detour that skyrockets the tension but feels disconnected from the far more compelling struggles of Julia’s place and personhood on the rodeo circuit. Small pockets of quasi-normalcy with the partner and child of a fellow gang member are engrossing in their moments of quiet contemplation.
However, Quivoron cannot keep her foot off the gas for long. As Raphaël Vandenbussche’s visual language veers between the grittily realistic and the increasingly dreamlike, the film evolves past its explosive premise into a paean of self-expression at any cost. The tonal unevenness of RODEO may hinder greatness, but the ride is electric.