The first things that one has to to say about Jack Cardiff’s 1968 Anglo-French co-production Girl on a Motorcycle are that it’s arty, it’s pretentious, it’s slow, and it’s very very 1960s. If those things turn you off, don’t even bother with this movie. On the other hand if (like me) you happen to enjoy 60s movies that are arty, pretentious and slow then you’re in for a treat.
Marianne Faithfull stars as Rebecca, a young woman who is engaged to be married to a very nice young school teacher named Raymond, but who is also hopelessly obsessed with another man, Daniel (Alain Delon). Daniel also teaches, but he isn’t a nice respectable young man. He is however devilishly handsome and very sexy, and he treats society’s rules with contempt. And he rides a motorcycle. A very big, very macho motorcycle, which he presents to Rebecca as a wedding present. After a short period of wedded bliss, which turns out to be not very blissful and extremely boring, Rebecca hops on her bike and sets out on a road trip to find Daniel. Most of the movie takes the form of her memories of past events, her daydreams, her imaginings of future happiness and her slightly kinky sexual fantasies.
Rebecca is a woman who wants more out of life. She isn’t sure exactly what it is she wants, but she just knows she wants more. She wants to feel alive. Riding her bike makes her feel alive. Bad boy Daniel makes her feel alive. Raymond makes her feel dead. Marianne Faithfull might not be a great actress in the conventional sense, but she’s perfect for the role and she’s very effective. It’s a sympathetic and very erotic performance that avoids the potential pitfalls of making the character overly precious or whiney. Alain Delon doesn’t have much to do other than look gorgeous, sexy and dangerous, but he does that very well.
Jack Cardiff was not only a good director, he was also a cinematographer of genius, and the movie is visually stunning. Some of the techniques he used seem very dated and very 60s now, such as the solarisation used in the sex scenes, but they’re actually quite effective. And it did allow him to include sex scenes that the censor would not otherwise have allowed him to get away with. It didn’t do him any good when it came to a US release though – the movie was still cut to ribbons there. Censors never have liked films that show women taking control of their sex lives, and the sight of a naked Marianne Faithfull was apparently considered much too dangerous for US audiences. The solarisation gives the movie a trippy feel that I rather enjoy. It’s also a great example of old-fashioned movie-making, where technical problems (such as the fact that Ms Faithfull could not ride a motorcycle but her character has to spend most of the movie riding one) had to be solved by skill and ingenuity rather than money and CGI.
I’ve heard reports that the Region 2 DVD release is rather disappointing in terms of image quality. There are no such problems with the Region 4 DVD – the movie looks fabulous, the colours look sensational, and there’s a superb commentary track by director Jack Cardiff. It’s one of those movies that really needs a commentary track. Cardiff was clearly immensely proud of this film. He describes it as a stream-of-consciousness movie and that’s a pretty fair summary of it.
If you love off-beat quirky arty movies, and if you like movies that focus on women, then this one is worth checking out. And the scenes with Rebecca on her motorcycle on the autobahn, where she is going as close to having sex with a motorcycle as a person can possibly go, really are extraordinarily erotic.