The Girl on a Motorcycle

(Naked Under Leather, UK/France - 1968)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Alain Delon, Roger Mutton, Marius Goring
Genre: Romance/Drama
Director: Jack Cardiff
Screenplay: Ronald Duncan, Jack Cardiff, & Gillian Freeman from Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues novel La Motocyclette
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Composer: Les Reed
Runtime: 91 minutes

Color photography master Jack Cardiff filmed the Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger classics of the late 1940’s, with this directorial outing being a kind of psychedelic version of The Red Shoes, subbing Moira Shearer’s rapturous passion for ballet with Marianne Faithfull’s for the freedom riding her motorcycle gives her to have passionate trysts with lover Daniel (Alain Delon). Everything is an expression of Rebecca’s (Faithfull) interior, allowing Cardiff to get away with including almost no conventional dialogue. Rebecca’s internal monologue conveys generally confused struggle to overcome the constrictions of her predetermined shallow and conventional existence.

Rebecca’s imagination and desires are more exciting than the life she’s chosen, her interior narrative superior to her conversations with others. We experience Rebecca’s life through her fragmented thoughts and recollections, ultimately realizing her lack of knowledge about those she spends time with is not because she’s not curious, but rather because fantasy and mystery will be better than reality.

Though a veiled critique of free love that’s typically sold on said hedonism, it’s more a moral on the inability to expect someone to become something they’re not than a moralist condemnation on the illusory nature of freedom and ultimate failure of such love. Like most young girls Rebecca chooses the respectability of marriage to a nice stable family man. She’s too scared to try otherwise, proposing to Raymond (Roger Mutton) soon after meeting a man that actually stimulates and excites her for fear of what might happen if she doesn’t. After teaching her how to ride, Daniel gives her the motorcycle as a wedding present, so the girl can’t help it anyway.

Raymond is too much like her bookstore owner father, and doesn’t stoke the adventurous young woman in any manner. Daniel and Raymond are both teachers, but while Raymond is timid and meek to the point the young children walk all over him, Daniel is completely in control of his college students. His failing seems to be that he can make everyone submit to his whims except the one woman he’s stuck on. The memory of this failed relationship has transformed him into a cold, callous, indifferent individual who is unable to express any emotion. Rebecca tries to have both worlds, but ultimately the wistful daydreamer is only alive when her motorcycle rides permit her vivid imagination to picture the thrilling, risky, dangerous excitement she gets from Daniel combined with the interest and commitment she gets but rejects from her clueless husband who she practically cuckolded upon saying “I do.” Short of her redefining her desires, the potential for either to satisfy her lies squarely in her cranium.

Serving as some inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, Cardiff’s artistic yet sometimes campy exploration of free love is more toward a lesser take on the territory Richard Lester navigated so brilliantly in his landmark Petulia, released the same month, than something Russ Meyer might have concocted if he was the artist his supporters seem to envision him being. Like Lester, Cardiff’s layered flashback style is highly symbolic, utilizing short tightly framed shots that are linked through the evocative editing style. The Girl on a Motorcycle doesn’t exactly succeed as an existential intellectual work, but the steam of consciousness narration at least represents a legitimate attempt to convey Rebecca’s hopes, dreams, desires, and aspirations. Today they’d just skirt all the issues, falling back on the obviousness of Rebecca wanting Daniel for his studliness that undoubtedly was attained by whatever products and service they are pushing at the moment.

Jack Cardiff doubles as cinematographer, making The Girl on a Motorcycle a showpiece for his haunting and sensual photography. The kinetic depictions of the ecstasy the sexy freckle face who is wearing nothing beneath her skin tight black leather jumpsuit experiences double as the formerly virginal teen’s sexual awakening. Powell & Pressburger usually got away with being studio bound, but the contrast between the beautiful European location photography and the prop motorcycle in front of rear projection is so startling you sometimes wonder if you haven’t been momentarily ejected from the hip piece of swinging cinema and instead thrust into a driver’s education movie. The use of solarization is likely experimental given The Girl on a Motorcycle is an early psychedelic film, but serves more as a censorship technique than a representation of an alternate state of mind. The evocative precision cinematography, shattered narrative, and kinky subject matter causes The Girl on a Motorcycle to remind me of a Nicolas Roeg film (granted that’s not surprising considering he lensed Petulia), so perhaps I’m willing to cut it more slack than most. It’s rarely as good as any film it evokes, but certainly interesting if not always convincing filmmaking.



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