Extreme motorsport is extreme escape, in ‘Jesús López’ and ‘Rodeo’

In the first scene of Jesus Lopez the title character seems to be on fire. Drunk, at a life-threatening speed, he rides a motorcycle; his long locks burn in the warm light behind him. López is haunted by danger, an inadequate life, his drunken motorcycle ride and his career as a race car driver are metaphorical for his need to escape.

López dies after that first scene, off screen. The rest of the movie is about the mourning of the community and especially his cousin. But the most interesting theme of the film is already in those opening moments: the meaning that people give to the roaring steel of the motor vehicle.

Extreme sport is escape. The adrenalin that comes from defying death is an antidote to the grind of ‘ordinary life’ – whatever it looks like. Extreme enginesport seems exponential escape. Two films are coming out this week that focus on its appeal.

The French Rodeo, director Lola Quivoron’s Cannes premiere debut, does that best. Main character Julia lives a depressing life in the underclass of France. She has no job, partners, pets, or stability, just her obsession with motorcycling. At a local rodeo (illegal motorcycle stunt party) she meets a group of criminal male bikers who call themselves the ‘B-Mores’. They don’t need a woman on the team, but after the only man who is nice to her has a fatal accident, she is accepted into the community anyway.

It is a fascinating look at the underground motorcycle club world, which is precisely defined by seclusion. Authentic too, the cast consists mainly of real bikers. Leading actress Julie Ledru also seems perfectly cast with all her frustration and (sometimes restrained) anger. That’s not surprising: Ledru had such an interesting life as a lonely motorist that Quivoron adapted the character to her.

But the greatest strength of Rodeo is Quivoron’s way of using editing, camerawork and music to power the story. Almost the entire film is jerky and minimalistic. Except when Julia is on a motorcycle. Then the sounds are muted, the colors warm, the music exciting and the camera stable. All existential misery slides off Julia, this moment on the bike makes everything worth it. You almost believe it yourself as a viewer.

Magic realism

A lack of subtlety makes Jesus Lopez much less impressive. The film is set in a small Argentinian rural community. Every village needs a hero, and this village has racing driver Jesús López. He lived the fastest, the most rebellious. He was the only one to rise above the tail-wagging cows in the meadow. His sudden death leaves a hole in the community. A gap that López’s cousin, Alba, is slowly starting to fill.

Alba not only has a family relationship with his cousin. He too wants to transcend his current existence, and he too has had an accident, visible through the scars on his face. When asked to drive his cousin’s car in a commemorative race, he disappears into that role.

Jesus Lopez is occasionally shot beautifully, tending to magical realism, befitting a South American film. But director Maximiliano Schonfeld is too eager to explain his magic and symbolism, causing the film to lose its mystique and become banal.

The metaphor of the speed of the motorbikes and racing cars as a means of escape from rural life is emphasized over and over again (literally in a voice-over at the end), so that you never get sucked into the story, but get the idea looking at a pamphlet. That while the dark colors and horror-like synthesizer tones in the scenes in which Alba gets behind the wheel tell more than enough.

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