I love how the title of this movie describes absolutely what you will see in the film itself.
It would be like giving Star Wars the title A Bunch of Space Ships Flying Around and Shooting At Each Other. Or calling Halloween Babysitter Terrified and Hiding in Closets. Because what you see in the film is … a girl (Marianne Faithfull) riding on a motorcycle. Endlessly. Passing over European borders and back. Zooming on the Autobahn. Careening over bridges. All while wearing a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit with nothing on underneath. (She looks phenomenal. Sex Personified.)
Border guards leeringly feel her up as they check her passport. She doesn’t care. In fact, she looks forward to seeing that guard again when she comes by a second time and is disappointed when it’s an older guy not interested in her. Bummer. She’s on her way to see her lover, the guy who gave her the motorcycle (as a wedding present – for her marriage to another guy – oops). Her lover, Daniel (Alain Delon – more on him in a second), is a cranky intellectual and we know that he is a cranky intellectual because he wears jaunty scarves around his neck and smokes a pipe. Daniel gives lectures to his all-male class, starting discussions with “what is Free Love, gentlemen?” He is a domineering lover, “taking” her wherever he feels like it. It appears that he took her virginity, although the scene is shot in such a “psychedelic” way you can’t really be sure, the screen going to neon swirling shapes where you can’t really see what’s going on. When the film opens, she’s a newlywed, married to a dweeby German math teacher, yearning so much for her lover (whom she met at around the same time she met her now-husband) that she crawls out of bed, puts on her black-leather jumpsuit, and heads off on her motorcycle into the fog. She’s been married for two months. Not a good sign.
As she rides, flashbacks bombard her (which is pretty dangerous, considering). We see her working in a bookshop with her Dad, meeting Daniel who comes in looking for a first-edition Swedenborg (honestly), and he stares at her with his burning eyes and takes her on a crazy ride on his motorcycle. The icy streets don’t stop him. He’s Evil Kneivel! As she drives in the present day, she laughs and cries and shouts things into the air as she careens through little Swiss towns. She’s quite a sight. She stops at a small bar filled with German men. She does shots of vodka and begins to disintegrate emotionally. At one point, she unzips her leather suit, and her glorious breasts pop out into plain view. Is it a dream? Is it a fantasy? A wish-fulfillment? What the hell is happening??
Let’s talk about the dream-sequence that opens the movie: The whole screen goes swirly spirally red, with random photos of crows, moving in and out, forward and back, to look “scary”, and leering clown-faces piling up on top of one another. What is a dream-sequence without a terrifying clown? In the dream Daniel sits in an armchair surrounded by bright red and laughs maniacally. Then everything switches to a surreal circus setting: Dweeby husband plays a cello in the middle of the ring, and all of the children point and laugh. Then out comes Daniel, in a white tux, white top hat, brandishing a whip. The “girl” enters the ring standing on a white horse, and starts to ride in a circle, all as Daniel whips her, again and again, until her black leather jumpsuit rips off and there she is, naked in front of the crowd. She wakes up gasping from this dream. It’s hilarious.
Directed, written and shot by the great Jack Cardiff, the thing LOOKS awesome. He shoots that motorcycle as though it is a Greek God (as indeed it is in the context of the “story”.) It’s powerful, it represents freedom, it represents sex. Speaking of which: She grinds her crotch into the vibrating machine as she zips along and has an orgasm, which may be hot and “out there” and all that but it is also almost as dangerous as texting and driving. Sheila’s PSA: Don’t have an orgasm, kids, when you’re flying along the Autobahn at 120 mph. Wait until you get home!
Imagine seeing the film while tripping on some hallucinogen in 1968. You can then understand every incoherent choice made.
And she is a sight to behold on that bike, man.
Also, my God:
The opening credits (I looked on Youtube and couldn’t find them! There is something listed as the “opening credits” but it’s an animated version, not at all what’s in the film itself) are fantastic. I found this still image of them:
David Lynch clearly used them as inspiration for the opening credits to Lost Highway.
Girl on a Motorcycle is filled with a lot of random crying and hysterical laughter. Emotions are erratic for no reason. Or the reason the emotions are so erratic is quite clear: DRUGS. The film is mostly made up of gorgeous helicopter shots or long shots from across rivers/mountains – of the solitary motorcycle girl zooming through towns, fields, cities, valleys, dales. Any time there is a sex scene, the screen goes psychedelic/swirly-red-spirals/dream-sequence. Free Love is cuh-ray-zee!!
I especially enjoyed her constant voiceover which narrates not only her life events (“I decided to get married” “Oh, Daniel, why can’t I quit you…”) but also what is happening right at that moment (“I need to get gas.” “I need a drink.”) Then we see her getting gas, getting a drink. Thank goodness for the voiceover, otherwise I would have had no idea what was going on.
Girl on a Motorcycle is a time-capsule of the tail-end of an era burning itself out. The back cover of my DVD copy calls it “Europe’s answer to Easy Rider” which makes me think Europe needs to step up its game a little bit. It feels more like Psych-Out, the psychedelic trippy hippies-gone-bad film starring Jack Nicholson, Dean Stockwell, and Susan Strasberg, all the drugs and sex and music and “flower-power”. Girl on a Motorcycle is more of a personal story, without the social relevance (so to speak) of Psych-Out but it has the same interest in the zeitgeist, the mood of the moment, the brand new freedoms, but the ancient emotions (around sex, around marriage, around intimacy) still present. Everything has a druggy trippy feel to it. Nobody can focus on anything for more than two seconds.
Alain Delon doesn’t have much to do besides look smoldering but honestly, along with Paul Newman, he is one of the most purely beautiful men to ever grace the silver screen. His beauty is heart-stopping. Camille Paglia, in her book Sexual Personae, wrote about how famous iconic figures (in art, in pop-culture) always bring a fluid androgyny to the table. Delon is androgynous and complex and sometimes eerily blank: he was both beautiful-golden-boy desired by all because DUH look at him, and ice-cold-opaque-killer.
Beauty like Delon’s is desirable, yes, it makes everyone, male and female, want him, but it is also distancing, at the same time. One is drawn towards it, moth to the flame, but moths are burnt up by flames, torched by their own desire. Hitchcock understood the off-putting nature of extraordinary beauty and understood the subtextual hostility/resentment that audiences (who are not beautiful) sometimes feel towards the movie stars on the screen. Therefore, he put Cary Grant through hell. Repeatedly. It’s cathartic. Delon’s beauty is a fact of nature, and it must be acknowledged. (My friend Mitchell observed that Angelina Jolie is best in the roles that acknowledge her off-the-charts looks. He said, “I’m sorry, but if she walks into a room and men DON’T fall off their chairs, I don’t buy it.” There’s a lot of truth in that. One of the reasons Maleficent was so awesome was because every second, every shot, was a celebration of her extraordinary face, her ferocious persona. It was a fairy-tale but, at least in that respect, it dealt with reality.) Delon had beauty like that. He doesn’t have a particularly warm beauty, it’s wrapped up in itself: regular people stare, but they don’t want to come too close. It would be like Michelangelo’s David strolling through Trader Joe’s. What would you DO? Delon looks both pure and sinister. (See him as the killer in Le Samourai, one of my favorite performances of all time).
Girl on a Motorcycle is undeniably silly and makes no sense whatsoever but there is also great pleasure in watching these two powerful of-the-moment sexual personae – Faithfull and Delon – riding a motorcycle together, shot by Cardiff.
Cardiff knew what to do with beauty.