Along for the Ride
By Clara Cuccaro
Dir. Lola Quivoron, France, Music Box Films
Rodeo played at Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival on March 16. [The following review contains plot spoilers.]
Lola Quivoron’s Rodeo begins with a closed fist. Julia (Julia Ledru), the film’s protagonist, first appears on guard, throwing her body from one person to another. "They picked the lock, stole my bike!” she screams into the void. We never find out why, but like Mona in Agnès Varda’s sprawling drama Vagabond, Julia is what some country singers would describe as “rode hard and put away wet.” Both characters are tired and alienated by the world at large because they defy conventional standards of femininity with their actions and gender nonconformity. They share a love of the open road, but unlike Mona, Julia would rather not stand on her own two feet. Her bike is a crutch that helps her forget the limitations of her body. When Julia is alone and physically grounded on the Earth rather than speeding down the highway, Quivoron examines her queer performance. Rodeo is at its most mesmerizing when Julia’s hair isn’t whipping in the wind.
Bikes are central in this world. They function like drugs, and as with snorting or huffing for a full body high, Julia will do anything, including scamming and masking, to maintain her life on the road. Her hustle consists of finding men on eBay and then swindling them during seemingly innocuous test runs. To pull off these robberies, preparations are made in advance. Julia smoothes over her genderfluid presentation with spit and dirt as she combs her long hair and swaps her usual raspy tone for French politeness. Like the condescending men she’s scamming, the camera lingers over Julia’s curves as she revs the engine. Once the bike is between her legs, Julia’s activated. She leaves everyone in the dust, riding high until she runs out of gasoline.
Julia’s gearhead mentality is shared by a group of riders called the “B-Mores,” who reluctantly take her in. Quivoron became familiar with urban rodeo riders during the making of her documentary Dreaming of Baltimore (2016), yet in Rodeo, the director mythologizes everyone on screen. Hyper-masculine and dripping with swagger, most of the bikers we see are non-actors, which lends them an air of authenticity, but the film’s DP, Raphaël Vandenbussche, captures their stunts and glistening bodies through the lens of some 21st-century social media stylization. Incessant close-ups and saturated colors make these bikers feel like performers in a music video rather than fleshed-out supporting players. Glued to Julia, we see the B-Mores through the eyes of an outsider, though at times they simply register as hollow representations of toxic masculinity, shouting things like “You want to touch my dick or what!” when Julia tries to help dress a wound.
Fortunately, Rodeo is not a coming-of-age or bleak rite-of-passage drama, but rather a character study where Julia’s trauma is close to the body. Most members of the B-Mores cannot comprehend that a woman would choose to dress in baggy, masculine clothes, so they sling slurs, frequently misgender, and threaten Julia’s very existence because she is a perceived threat to their clan. These dudes could care less about their shared love of the road. Constantly objectified and under surveillance from her chosen family, Julia starts to crack despite having allies like Kaïs (Yanis Lafki), the second in command, who also maintains a crush on Julia, much to her annoyance. Multiple times in the film, she ritualistically cleanses her body with burning sage as a form of self-soothing, and during a casual smoking session, peels a hunk of skin off her finger in an effort to ground herself in reality. Julia’s energy wanes after she’s beaten by one of the B-Mores, who hides his identity and harasses Julia throughout, causing her to almost faint after one of her routine eBay hustles. Sensing something’s awry, Kaïs reaches out, but it’s too late. “Look at me. You can trust me, you know,” he says. but Julia can barely muster a nod. Scamming and bringing in loot for the gang only offers a false sense of security. Ultimately this environment is not a safe space.
Like Julia, Ophélie (Antonia Buresi), is an outsider among the B-Mores, except that she flaunts her femininity with tight clothes and red lipstick. Held hostage with her young son, Kylian (Cody Schroeder), under the guise of protection by her husband and gang leader, Dominio (Sébastien Schroeder), Ophélie is at her wits’ end. She exerts little control over her life and chastises Kylian in front of the group as a result. When Julia first sees this, she simply stares. Is she turned on or off? Perturbed? At this moment, it’s unclear, but unlike the rest of the group, Julia makes a beeline for Ophélie. She regularly buys groceries for Dominio's captive wife and develops a loving, playful rapport with Kylian.
Wary of almost everyone associated with the B-Mores, Ophélie holds her guard until she sees Julia’s wounds. Sensing their kindred spirits, she offers a shiv as protection. With this newfound confidence, Julia is bold, retaliating with rage when jumped and letting her gaze linger over Ophélie’s body as she becomes more comfortable in her presence. She leans into her attraction to Ophélie through touch and frequent visits, culminating in a clandestine bike ride. But Dominio has eyes and ears everywhere. He suspects that Julia may be coming onto his wife after their secret rendezvous, so he stops all contact between them. Crushed by this progression and Ophélie’s rejection, Julia breaks down in tears and gives up. She is not just losing a love interest but also the potential for a new life.
Over the course of Rodeo, Julia’s shifting emotions and internal anxieties are prioritized over the film’s narrative action. This is why the bike sequences fade into the background. We’re supposed to see the realistic physical and emotional effects on a queer person living within the boundaries of a hypermasculine group, which functions as a microcosm of society. Despite Quivoron’s attention and care, Rodeo ends with a cliché. Julia dies on the side of the road, shrouded in flames. The film seems to suggest that she died a martyr, but as a nonconforming individual, Julia simply didn’t want to be trapped in the confines of her gender presentation. In a sequence superimposed, ghostlike, on the screen, Julia’s spirit leaves her body in the dust by jumping on a bike. At least now, she can just ride.