She has no story. She calls herself like a Western hero, “Unknown,” and the men whose world she rushes into like nothing they’ve known before have to be content with a few clues. “Has breasts and long hair,” says one, who must be a woman. And her tattoo, does it mean something? Yes, she says, “it tells my story,” end of announcement.
Nobody learns much more about Julia (Julie Ledru), the eye-ringed, gap-toothed young motorcyclist in Lola Quivoron’s feature film debut “Rodeo”. After all, where she comes from: a short eye-roll, pointing to her own splendor of Caribbean curls and one word: “Gwada”. Short for Guadeloupe. Has to be enough. enough too. For a whole, breathless film.
He knows his story. Apricot trees once grew on his parents’ dry piece of land in Tehran. Iman (Iman Sayad Borhani) and his younger brother Payar (Payar Allahyari) even picked grapes there as children. In the feature film debut “Chevalier Noir” by Iranian director Emad Aleebrahim Dehkordi, a nouveau riche uncle wants to seize this country, cut down trees, build a road, and become even richer.
Iman wants to prevent it with all his might. It should remain as it is, or become as it was, but there is not even enough money for the plumber. So Iman starts selling coke to his wealthy friends. They flatter him as their “king”. On his very first nocturnal motorbike tour, a vulture slams into his helmet. The bird dies in his arms, he keeps repeating it afterwards, as if it had a meaning he couldn’t decipher.
The titles of the two debuts evoke memories of classic biker films, of bourgeois frights and biker gangs as a threat to bourgeois living environments or, in a positive light, as an alternative to the “encrustations of bourgeois society”, as the media scientist Hans Jürgen Wulff writes.
Since the 1970s, biker groups and “remnants of their genre stories” have become “play material” that can “enter almost any mixture” with genres such as horror and splatter films, thrillers and crime films, gladiator films and war films. Only the increasingly documentary view since the 1990s has shifted the focus to “the subjective meaning of driving”.
This subjective meaning could not be more different in these two radically contemporary films. Julia gets drunk driving, Iman drives drunk. He needs money, she steals (at first) for fun. Both films do not shy away from the documentary gesture, but play with the fantastic.
“Hyperrealistic” Lola Quivoron calls “Rodeo”; Emad Aleebrahim Dehkordi describes his work as an “ultra-real story” inspired by animation genres and film noir, told with the “narrative codes of the Persian fairy tale”. In “Rodeo” the dead rise, in “Chevalier” a vulture eats the liver of the still somewhat intoxicated Iman, this Prometheus for the poor.
Although the title so closely ties the hero to his ride, we see him on his bike just one more, equally unlucky, time. Knightly attributes, such as a sword and a shield, appear as children’s toys from the fairground, which the neighbor’s young son Hanna (Masoumeh Beygi) plays with. In “Chevalier Noir” things are in bad shape for the former freedom guarantor motorcycle. After the bird accident, Iman says his motorcycle is “cursed” and he no longer wants to touch it.
Nevertheless, the motorcycle continues to shape the film: through its absence. We see: tiredly holding on to the handrail in the subway at night; drugged ride with Iman’s also coked buddy in the high-horsepower swanky car. And a lot of restless walking around in heavy shoes, followed by Amin Jafari’s handheld camera like in a film by the Dardenne brothers, sometimes in long planned sequences, through clubs, stairwells, over balconies at dizzying heights. Movement is tedious and purposeful, pausing only comes with exhaustion.
“Rodeo” begins with a confusing movement: Julia curses and punches herself through the stairwell of a prefabricated building in France. Her bike was stolen from her, so she has to swipe a new one from the nearest bona fide ebay seller. Here, too, the hand-held camera (Raphaël Vandenbussche) is breathing down the heroine’s neck.
Only outside do we see Julia’s face. And it’s only when she rushes away on her new prey that the film calms down: instead of staying petty with the upset theft victim, the camera – shot in cinemascope format – floats alongside the traveling woman. A wild luck that doesn’t care about good or bad. It’s good to step on the gas and let your hair flutter and your gold teeth gleam.
The two debuts don’t pretend to be political. But in times when urban space is parasitically divided between tank-like SUVs on the one hand and toy-like e-scooters on the other, the time-honoured, fast, slim motorbike is perhaps the most eloquently telling of those centrifugal forces that cause social classes to drift apart in countries that hardly have anything do something about the fact that people are more and more radically isolating themselves from each other, surrounded by their possessions.
She doesn’t need any money, Julia says with a shrug, “I steal what I need”. Not because of her driving skills, but because she can steal motorcycles like nobody else, she is personally hired from prison by the boss of a partly misogynistic motocross group. Soon she plans to ambush a truck full of bikes at full speed, and the film becomes a heist movie.
Despite her disinterest in money, she begins to collect her wages and this has to do with Ophélie (Antonia Buresi), the boss’s wife. She lives with her little son like a prisoner in a little house that is always darkened. Julia forces her and the child to go on a forbidden, short family outing.
Her amorality makes Julia an outlaw even within the biker subculture. She doesn’t even respect the boundaries between male and female that prevail here, only wears make-up to reassure men when they’re stealing, and prefers to grab her crotch than wiggle her bum like the boys’ decorative companions. Julia’s desire for freedom is not easy to classify, she opens the film and puts it on a track from which it jumps out again and again.
“Chevalier Noir”, on the other hand, begins with a gesture of locking in and being locked out: Iman pushes the heavy garage door closed to protect his possessions, the motorcycle. The door of the parents’ house, which still exudes the charm of former bourgeois prosperity, is locked.
Iman doesn’t have a key, so he balances across the roof. The father complains that he shows “the burglars the way”. What are they going to steal here, the son snaps back. He despises the father, who has only generated income for years by selling the family property. A world in dissolution.
Of course, this is also a metaphor for Iranian society, in which a few super-rich have withdrawn to their quarters high above the city like a “fortress”, as the director puts it. When shooting in Tehran, there were other restrictions due to the pandemic in addition to censorship.
He, who has lived in France for years and who hardly recognizes his neighborhood in the rapidly changing metropolis on his visits to Tehran, took advantage of this and transferred his characters to an “almost invisible” city.
In these cities, whose promises of freedom have long since become illegible, the motorcycle has also had its day as a means of overcoming borders. It shrinks – literally in “Rodeo”, namely in the form of a children’s motorcycle made of plastic, which has a surprise in store at the end. In “Chevalier” it degenerates into a delivery service vehicle. Even a supposed “king” then stands in his black armor like a dog in front of the gate of the rich, cheated out of his wages.