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DIRECTED BY: Jack Cardiff
FEATURING: Marianne Faithfull, Alain Delon, Roger Mutton, Marius Goring
PLOT: The newly married Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull) absconds from her marriage bed and rides her motorcycle to meet her lover.
COMMENTS: Rated X and released in 1968, The Girl on a Motorcycle wants to be a lot of things: erotic, trippy, rebellious, and philosophical, as well as a sex kitten vehicle for pop star Marianne Faithfull. But most of all, it wants to be a motorcycle movie about free love. Complicating matters, it’s also about S&M.
Girl was adapted, shot, and directed by Jack Cardiff, the foremost British cinematographer of the day. Cardiff used inventive (at the time) methods to shoot said girl on said motorcycle: rear projection, bike strapped to a flatbed, and, for mid-to-long shots, using professional motorcyclist Bill Ivy as a stand in. None of these are very convincing though, which is unfortunate since great swaths of the movie focus on Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull) on her bike while we hear her thoughts in voiceover.
The content of the voiceover doesn’t help the movie’s cause much either. Most of it is Rebecca pining ecstatically for her lover. Other parts seem like outright pandering to the youth, e.g., “Rebellion is the only thing that keeps you alive.”
This voiceover track plays while newlywed Rebecca rides through the French countryside clad only in a leather catsuit (hence the name of the American release, Naked Under Leather). Her motorcycle was a wedding gift from her lover, Daniel (Alain Delon). During this extended ride—which in reality would only take a couple of hours—she has plenty of time to ruminate about how square her husband is, how superior free love is, how marriage will soon be a thing of the past, and how great a lover Daniel is. Oh, and how much she loves her motorcycle. (Loves like Titane loves that Cadillac Coupe DeVille.)
Ostensibly, the ride is to take her to Daniel, a pretentious philosophy professor who treats her poorly and at times violently. But a lot happens along the way, including a psychedelic dream sequence, a psychedelic road trip montage, and a few psychedelic sex scenes.
During one stop along the road to writhe in grass, Rebecca is passed and leered at by a military convoy, which leads her to rant about how joining the military proves you hate your own freedom and likely have never had sex and probably can’t. This is a weird and jarring separation from the theme of the movie and sticks out as another attempt to pander to the youth of the day.
Other scenes also stand out as odd. In the very beginning there is a dream sequence in which Rebecca and Daniel are psychedelically going at it but are abruptly interrupted by clown faces. The husband plays cello in the center ring of a circus while Rebecca stands balanced on a moving motorcycle and Daniel, the ringleader, whips pieces of her one-piece leather suit off of her.
Another odd scene shows Rebecca contemplating a gray, straight-lined gas station. She’s complaining about it as a symbol of a society with no freedom (we get it already!) when an attendant in a bright orange jumpsuit comes out. At the sight of him, she freaks out—mouth open, trembling—and drives away.
Let’s not forget the post-coital motocross highlight reel.
Sadomasochism is never overtly mentioned, but Rebecca is choked and whipped and flogged with roses. Late in the movie, she realizes what she has with Daniel is not free love. She is attached to him and loves the control he exerts over her.
After sitting in a German café weighing her husband—a kind man who loves her but is boring—against Daniel—a cold man who doesn’t love her but is exciting—she chooses Daniel again. Riding off in an ecstatic state (facilitated by the vibrations of her motorcycle), the inevitable happens—inevitable in any ‘60s film about free love and motorcycles: a fiery crash. Less predictable is the helicopter pullback from the crash, at least a year before Easy Rider.
What makes this film truly unique is its audacity in continuously showing Faithfull over-emoting on a bike she isn’t riding. Nevertheless, as a vehicle to turn her into a sex symbol, it worked. Full-frontal nudity will do that.
Girl isn’t a good movie, but for viewers who appreciate kitschy ‘60s exploitation, it’s not a bad way to spend 91 minutes.
In 2023, Kino upgraded their Girl on a Motorcycle DVD to Blu-ray for the first time. It ports over Cardiff’s original commentary track from the DVD and adds an alternate commentary from film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who analyzes the film through a feminist lens.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A countercultural curio of almost painterly beauty…”–Joseph Jon Lanthier and Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)