Jack Cardiff was best known as a cinematographer, particularly for his work on big-budget color films like Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The African Queen (1951), for which he was honored with a special Oscar in 2001 (it dubbed him the “Master of light and color”). But Cardiff also directed 15 films, which run the gamut from the Oscar-nominated Sons and Lovers (1960) to the world’s first Smell-O-Vision film, Scent of Mystery (1960), and the 1974 The Mutations, which stars Donald Pleasance as a scientist trying to cross-breed Venus flytraps with college students.
The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968—it came out in France a month after the May ’68 civil unrest) is a cult film that qualifies as both experimental and low-brow: the former because of the bizarre fantasy sequences and psychedelic effects that pop up from time to time, the latter because it’s essentially soft porn starring pop singer Marianne Faithfull, who as an actress was a pretty good singer. She’s cute as anything, however, and you get to see all of her fairly early on in this film, which was a big deal in the 1960s (this film was the recipient of the first “X” rating in the U.S.).
Faithfull stars as Rebecca, the “Girl” of the title, who works in her father’s bookshop and is recently married to a dull Swiss schoolteacher, Raymond (Roger Mutton), whose primary school students run rings around him. But she also has a side-piece, the very not dull Daniel (Alain Delon), who gave her the motorcycle as a wedding gift (for the record, it’s a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide). When she finds Raymond less than satisfying, she fantasizes about Daniel, then heads off on the motorcycle to visit him. Rather unusually for the times (and for our time as well), Rebecca is the true protagonist of this film, with the male characters playing roles within her story. If she doesn’t seem to have much going on in her head besides erotic desires, well, it was the 1960s after all.
I don’t know if the whole “riding a motorcycle is like having sex” trope* began with this film, but Cardiff certainly whomps on it pretty hard. Nothing gets between Rebecca and her fur-lined, form-fitting leather riding suit, and she fondles both it and her bike as though they were human lovers. While she’s on the road, we hear her thoughts in voiceover, and also see scenes from her and the other characters’ past lives. Like any good 1960s rebel, she finds respectable life to be stifling, and the main thing on her mind is whether to stick with her conventional bourgeois life with Raymond or take a walk on the wild side with Daniel.
Today, The Girl on a Motorcycle can be tedious to watch—it’s too tame to be shocking, too bizarre to take seriously, and seriously limited in its gender politics—but it’s still worth seeing as a document of the period when it was made. It’s also a bike movie with a difference, offering a nice counterpoint to the typical fare in that male-dominated genre. Finally, it’s a road movie in which the European countryside looks so great that you may find yourself, as I did, spending more time fantasizing about taking a motorcycle tour of Europe—down the tree-lined country lanes, across the ancient bridges, through the charming small towns—than you do getting interested in any of the bedroom nonsense that was such a big deal in the 1960s. | Sarah Boslaugh
* Motorcycles have taken on quite different meanings in lesbian novels, which makes me think this whole “throbbing thing between your legs” stuff is basically the creation of men with limited imagination, at least when it comes to the experiences of women.
The Girl on a Motorcycle is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, using a new 4K restoration. The disc comes with two audio commentaries, by director Jack Cardiff and film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, as well as the trailers for this and six other films.