Rodeo: The Feminist Biker Flick That Conquered Cannes

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Rodeo
Rodeo, 2022(Film still)

Director Lola Quivoron and her star, Julie Ledru, on the stunt-biking subculture that inspired a supercharged debut

“I was born with a bike between my legs,” says Julie Ledru in Rodeo, flashing a gap-toothed smile at some poor dupe soon to be relieved of his motorbike. Part-feminist crime thriller, part-youth-culture exposé à la Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Lola Quivoron’s Cannes breakout stars Ledru in her screen debut as Julia, a reckless young French-Guadeloupean woman who infiltrates the world of cross-bitume, a stunt-riding subculture imported to France from the US sometime in the 00s. She is magnetic in the role, bringing barely controlled rage and moments of tenderness to the character as she upends this male-dominated universe, finally plotting an audacious heist that will change everything for the film’s protagonists.

To play this human “ball of fire”, Ledru had to “dig into a very old, ancient anger” that she’d carried around since childhood. But despite the dog-eat-dog nature of the world she inhabits, Julia also seems to possess some kind of psychic link to the spiritual plane. Ultimately, it’s these mystical threads that make Rodeo thrum beyond its thrilling stunt-riding sequences (the cast was largely drawn from the cross-bitume community) and impart a faint aura of magic to this most stylish of debuts. We spoke to Quivoron and Ledru on a high from the film’s world premiere at Cannes, where they reflected on the “soul connection” at the heart of their collaboration, and near-misses with fellow biker chick Rosalía.

Congratulations, Lola and Julie! Your film has been a big success at this year’s festival, how does it feel to be loved?

Lola Quivoron: I [only] finished the movie last week, so it’s really special but also kind of violent because I was not prepared at all. We shot the film over 29 days and it was really intense, we were so full of desire to build this movie, so for me it’s like a gift to share it. But I still haven’t seen my movie with the distance of a spectator so it’s really cool to hear other people’s thoughts and analyses, it gives me a lot of energy.

Lola, this is your second movie set in the world of cross-bitume, after 2016’s short film “Au Loin Baltimore”. What’s the fascination with this scene?

LQ: I made “Au Loin Baltimore” when I was at [film] school in Paris, and I wanted that one to be really close to the reality [of biking] because I was still discovering this world. But with Rodeo it’s different, I really wanted it to be more like fiction. I wanted to get this intensity that was influenced by gangster movies or gender action movies. Where “Au Loin Baltimore” has a naturalistic aesthetic, we can say that maybe Rodeo is sur-realistic, because there is this kind of fantastic world in the movie, and I really wanted to focus on the interiority of Julia as a character, her subjectivity. She is really a mixture of a lot of things, my dreams in a way, because I always dreamed about this character.

Julia performs sage-burning rituals to ward off evil, how important was the spiritual dimension to the character?

LQ: I wanted her to be a soul in a way, it was the best way to express the freedom [she yearns for]. It’s something magical, something invisible [to do with] the energy of the body. Because the body is something in our society that is really kind of repressed, [especially] as a woman, as a migrant or someone who is homosexual, for example. [Burning sage] is something I practise myself, it’s something really powerful which can open doors, and [put you in touch] with another reality. When I met Julie I was fascinated by her spiritual way of thinking.

Julie Ledru: I also practise [sage-burning]; I think it comes from this mystic streak of my dad. It made me see with my own eyes some very interesting things; I do believe that we are too often sealed up in a box [as human beings] and sadly close our eyes to [ideas] that would allow us to see things as they really are. Since we shot the film I’ve also started carrying stones. We had an accident on set where I twisted my ankle, and after that [Lola and I] both felt we were in danger for a while, so Lola had the idea to go and get some stones to protect ourselves [with]. As soon as I put them on my ankle I felt an incredible strength, and we returned to filming with a real explosion of motivation. We all have this energy inside us; the problem is you have to know how to release it properly. It can be helpful to us in our lives.

Julia’s free-spiritedness is contrasted in the film with the character of Ophélie, a mob wife who is very much under her husband’s control. All the same, they develop a close bond. What did you want to express by playing these characters off each other? 

LQ: My girlfriend Antonia Buresi, who plays Ophélie, participated a lot in the writing process. Her character is connected to a lot of books that we shared about feminism, transfeminism, antiracist struggles… We are really open to this kind of plural, fragmented representation of female characters. Julia is a character who expresses a lot, she’s like a ball of fire that crosses the movie really fast and burns her wings. And Ophélie is the opposite. I wanted to have this kind of dialectic to express a kind of empowerment, even if Ophélie is trapped in a kind of social determinism. I like opposition, and the movie is really made up of contrasts. It’s not really linear as a narrative; it’s a really disruptive way of telling a story ’cos it’s like [makes fast-chopping motion], there’s no way to breathe, you know? So the opposition for me is a way to express [ideas]. Julia offers [Ophélie] a way to think differently, and maybe also there is an erotic tension there. I didn’t want the relationship to be expressed as lesbian, the film always switches the way we are thinking and I wanted it to be [ambiguous].

You worked with a cast of non-professional actors for the film, how did you prepare?

LQ: When we created the group during the casting process it was really important for me to prepare, to make a family group. I don’t like to talk about directing, for me it’s a term that reflects ideas about power; I have problems with it and prefer to be [more like] a guide, someone who cares about energies and the crew in the sense of creating links, catalysing energy. The main thing for me with this movie was the actors. They had to get to know their characters [deeply] as human beings, and they had to know their spiritual conflicts; I wanted to create a sensation with the mise en scene which is very close to their bodies, to their eyes. I wanted to reach a kind of truth that is really connected to them. As a filmmaker you have to give self-confidence [to your actors], it’s the main feeling you have to share. And then you can work in a safe place and let them blossom.

Julie, what was your inspiration for the character of Julia?

JL: My inspiration was more linked to Lola and I meeting, somehow we created the inspiration together from our first meeting by getting to know each other.

LQ: Our souls connected. I think we share the same experiences of our bodies as women in society.

JL: And that’s what enabled the character. Lola had very precise ideas [for the film], she was very determined and I was very willing to follow her in her determination.

How did you develop the way the character moves, her body language?

JL: In order to find that I had to dig into a very old, ancient anger from when I was young, it was about conjuring it up again and accepting my own anger, but also reliving it in order to be able to find my character through that.

What was it like being thrust into this very male world of stunt bike-riding for the shoot?

JL: I’ve been riding bikes since the age of nine; I started learning with my brother on his dad’s bike. So when I found myself in this cross-bitume environment [for Rodeo] I was surrounded by men, yes, but it wasn’t a problem for me because I’d grown up with riders, and I’d always tended to hang out more with guys than with girls. It helped me adapt very quickly. I’ve been riding all around France, sometimes you hear [people say], ‘What the hell are you doing, out here on your own?’ but I know the codes, I’ve grown up in this world.

Your film premiered a few months after the release of Rosalía’s Motomami, and the biker-themed video for Saoko, are you a fan of her work?

LQ: I wanted Rosalía for the party we had last night but unfortunately she couldn’t make it. I really love this clip and the track, I like the flow, and I like her stand for women in general. She’s a woman I admire a lot, because she is a really hybrid female personality.