“Rodeo” might have had a clearer (and catchier) title if it had been called “Wheelie.” It’s a drama set among French motocross riders, who are a bit like the outlaw bikers of the ’60s except that they wear cropped hair and athletic logo T-shirts instead of hippie manes and satanic leather jackets. And in this movie, at least, they don’t rove. They’re rooted in a desolate suburb of Paris, where they gather to zoom along the road and pop up on one wheel, which the movie describes to us as a feeling of intense liberation. It sure looks that way.
But it’s only in fits and starts, mostly during the first 20 minutes, that “Rodeo” gets off on those stunts. Julia (Julie Ledru), the feral but untrained biker who joins the gravity-tweaking competitors, is the only female on hand, and she never does learn how to pop a wheelie; she achieves her freedom through stealing. Yet she longs to be accepted into this brotherhood of “balls” (the word gets used a lot — and applied to her as well), who refer to themselves as the B-Mores. They run a chop shop for bikes and see her as an interloper until, after a while, they don’t.
How much of a rebel misfit is Julia, whose family comes from Guadeloupe? She’s such a misfit that the nickname she chooses for herself is “Unknown.” The new-to-movies actor Julie Ledru has jutting teeth with a gap in front that suggests a certain daredevil insolence, though when she’s in repose, which is nearly always, the look in her eye is deeply and strikingly tragic. She looks like an exotically depressed Geena Davis. We long to know what formed that face, but “Rodeo” is a movie that’s all surface, all present tense, all too-cool-to-be-anything-but-French-vérité gestures. “I was born with a bike between my legs,” says Julie, and that’s about as close as the film comes to character development.
Julie has a crime that she repeats like a ritual, or maybe an addiction. She arrives at the home of a wealthy person in the countryside, who is selling a fancy used motorbike, usually for around 3,000 Euro. They always want her to take a very limited test drive — like, to the end of the driveway. She tentatively agrees, then hops on the bike, revs it, and charges off toward the highway, laughing with jubilant FTW liberation, never to be seen by them again. You can understand how someone could get away with this once, but since she seems to do it about every other day, the audience has thoughts like: Don’t they have police in France?
Lola Quivoron, the director and co-writer of “Rodeo,” uses Julia as a totem of downtrodden but implacable feminine fighter spirit. And Ledru, a biker who was discovered by Quivoron on Instagram, has such an intriguing presence that we want to know how Julia came to be. What melted her down to the point that she craves nothing but reckless acting out? Early biker cinema like the “Hell’s Angels” flicks had a B-movie psychology, but “Rodeo,” at least on the surface, is more realistic; the movie’s racing and party scenes suggest someone trying to work in the mode of Andrea Arnold’s’s “American Honey.” It’s life-is-shallow/life-is-doom existential storytelling. Yet there’s nothing to the characters but their indifferent surface and the unruly “energy” they occasionally reveal beneath. So after a while they start to wear you down.
There’s a biker dude named Kaïs (Yanis Lafki), who in a different-era version of this movie, one where romance existed, would have hooked up with the heroine. You can, at times, feel the ghosts of Belmondo and Seberg in “Breathless” hovering over their scenes together, but according to the logic of today, love compromises cool. So they simply end up collaborating on a robbery. Julia has spotted a truck, painted electric blue, that contains a shipment of KXF 2020s. Upon hearing this news, Kaïs says, “You know how to talk to a guy.” The plan is to steal those bikes, yet this is no heist movie. There’s no elaborate scheme, no run-up to the crime. The movie devotes way more time to Julia getting to know Ophélie (played by the film’s cowriter, Antonia Buresi), the wife of the gang’s imprisoned leader, in scenes that are enervated and go nowhere.
How are they going to take those bikes? They’ll do it while the truck is zipping along at night at 50 kilometers per hour; they’ll enter from the back. It’s like something you’d expect to see in a “Fast and Furious” film, in which case the preposterousness would be part of the fun, but in “Rodeo” we gawk in befuddlement at a plan that’s destined to blow up. (Did I mention that Julia’s enemy biker chooses the exact moment in which they’re on the truck, risking their lives…to sexually attack her?) A lot blows up in “Rodeo.” It’s another portrait of a lady on fire, though in this case you may just want to put out the flames that consume any remnant of what we thought we were invested in.