On Jack Cardiff’s The Girl On A Motorcycle (1968)

by Jacqueline Valencia

****Spoiler alert: part analysis and part review. See the film if you can.*******

“Just touch me and I won’t go.” – Rebecca

When I talk about film, I’ll go on and on about the lack of lonely women movies. There are plenty, in fact the world is overflowing with lonely men movies. Taxi Driver, Falling Down, Psycho, Nightcrawler, Fight Club, A Serious Man, The Shining, Easy Rider, Only God Forgives, It’s A Wonderful Life*, oh the list can go on and on and on. These are amazing films and as audiences we connect with them because of our disenfranchisement and the existential angst of being truly alone. Our lives are solitary in our heads and we’ll die alone in them too. I’ve written a couple of essays on the lack of lonely women film where I try to detail examples of what might make a truly lonely women movie. It gets problematic because I can’t speak for all women. No one can. However, I’ve even tried subverting the lonely man film genre by changing the gender in film excerpts. The Shining reads scarier with Wendy as a man and Taxi Driver becomes feminist revenge porn with Tracy Bickell instead of Travis Bickell. Yet not all women are lonely in the same way. We’re human and we become even more complex with the sociological forces that impede on us because of our gender. As women, the world is constantly doing battle with our brains and our bodies. We can’t go outside without a billboard or magazine telling us how we should behave or how we should be. We are isolated and singled out merely for existing.

So as a film critic and a female, I’m constantly looking for connections for the female audience. I’ll watch something like American Psycho and my brain explodes envisioning it with a female protagonist. It makes so much sense. A female psychopath birthed in eighties corporate America? Hell yeah. But yet it’s assumed no one will buy into that even though Nicole Kidman basically played the Patrick Bateman role in To Die For. Maybe it’s because movie executives, ie, mostly men, don’t want to see women lose their shit? I’m going to be frank, here. The reality is that we’ve been losing our shit for centuries. The world choses not to listen, not because it doesn’t care, but because it’s afraid, so very afraid of us reaching the boiling point. I’m sorry (not sorry), guys, but there’s an army of women out in the world that are tired of the way we’ve been treated now. It’s been thousands of years and something’s got to give. Eventually there will be representation of us whether you like it or not. The surprising thing will be that you will connect with it, just as we have been connecting with that axe wielding husband who’s possessed by the forces of a house to destroy his wife and his child. Really, now, imagine if it was Wendy with the axe. You will love it.

The point is, I get really excited when people try to bring the lonely woman genre to the big screen. For some that may be in Francis Ha or Wanda** or maybe Colombiana. For others it may be Waiting to Exhale.*** I’m into darker fare though, it’s just where my brain goes. Thus, in viewing Jack Cardiff’s The Girl On A Motorcycle I was a bit blown away. This film came out a year before Easy Rider. Still seen as cheesy sixties psychedelia, there’s substance in it that could only be appreciated if you view it looking back.

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In The Girl On A Motorcycle, newly wed Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull) wakes up in her bed. She turns to look at her new husband Raymond (Roger Mutton) and falls back into fitful dreams. Her dreams are psychedelic, totally something out of an acid trip. There are clowns, nudity, and fire. We eventually settle on a vision of Raymond playing a violin in the middle of a circus ring. Rebecca’s lover, a very handsome Daniel (hello, Alain Delon), rides a motorcycle around Raymond, staring at him as if daring him to stop playing. Rebecca is seen crying in the crowd. Daniel then appears in a white ring leader’s suit as Rebecca stunt rides a white horse. Daniel whips at her as she rides. She unflinchingly smiles as she performs. Her face displays a mixture of ecstasy and relief. With a final whip by Daniel at her breasts, her clothes come off and she rides off onto a beach and eventually falls in front of Daniel who laughs at her predicament.

When she wakes up again she calls out to Raymond, but is unable to rouse him from his sleep. She walks over to her leather cat suit and says,”It’s like skin. I’m like an animal.”

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She gets on her motorcycle intending to ride off from her home in France to Heidelberg to see Daniel. From then on the film switches time and place through the present, Rebecca’s thoughts, memories, and fantasies. In these memories we see that the motorcycle is a wedding gift from Daniel. While it’s a way for her to escape her home life, in essence it becomes a symbol of her possible independence. But upon thinking deeper we realize maybe Daniel is just another crutch in her life.

Rebecca’s face lights up at the roar of the engine between her legs and the wind that invites freedom in her head. She constantly ponders phrases that allude to serving Daniel or to escape her life altogether on her ride. As an audience we are given to sensual views of a young leather clad Rebecca going through a massive sexual awakening on screen. Her thoughts are coquettish, but interspersed with a sapience full of gloom and judgements.

“I fly towards you like those birds. Like a rocket into the sun. Will I burn up?”

“Being married is a little death. Being married here…it is bloody kindness that’s killing me.”

“Look Daniel! I can rub them out! Like something in a drawing book. I twist on the throttle and obliterate this muck. And turn myself on!” said as she rides across the countryside.

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She rides carelessly as the very sixties soundtrack plays on. Daniel’s riding instructions appear in her head.

“He knows I’m coming. He senses prey,” she thinks.

Rebecca’s face goes from happy to disappointed. She lies on in the lush forest like a lost fairy.

Bear in mind Daniel’s views on free love are culled from beat poetry and a general intellectual malaise with the state of the world. The sixties are almost over, what do we do with all this free love? Rebecca quotes Daniel often rendering his thoughts against the world as her thoughts against her place in the world. Daniel may be an escape, but he’s entrapped her as that escape. Her life with Raymond is the result of convenience and affection, but as she scans her neighbourhood she sees it as death incarnate.

***spoiler – end scene***

Rebecca thinks of her future sexual adventures with Daniel and gets carried away. Tears run down her face as envisions climaxing, and actually climaxes on the motorcycle. She swerves, hits a pickup truck. Her body flies into the windshield of a car. Another car hits the crash scene and explodes by her motorcycle. The camera pans back at the scene, screams softly heard as the credits roll.

Wait. This kind of reminds me of another scene in a film released a year after.

Different circumstances, but they’re both abrupt and similar. One film is about young female disenfranchisement and the true agency she fails to materialize because of the men in her life. The other film is a counterculture exemplary lonely man film. Stick it to the man they both say, but they die in their efforts.The ending is stark and quick just like Easy Rider, like Taxi Driver after that, and many New Hollywood avant-garde films that proceeded it.

Cardiff’s cinematography is textured by the French countryside, envisioning it as a medieval fairyland while contrasting it with the rough textures of the suburbs. Houses tower over nature and as Rebecca reaches the sea, the lens grows bright like the sun. Freedom is the sea into the unknown where everything is possible. It could have been an enlightening freedom for Rebecca.

The Girl On A Motorcycle is worth visiting if you haven’t seen it and revisiting it if you already have.

The film is an adaptation of André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ 1963 surrealist novel “The Motorcyle” which was inspired by Anke Eve Goldmann. If I get the chance to read it, I might revisit this analysis and digest even more.

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* C’mon, the tale of a frustrated businessman wondering what life would be like if he didn’t exist = lonely man movie

** Look for my analysis and review of Wanda coming from Images Festival for Notebook MUBI. *hint hint nudge nudge*

*** https://media.giphy.com/media/cG5u01Z634B9K/giphy.gif Oh yeah.

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* Where Are All The Women Hermits? by Rhian Sasseen http://aeon.co/magazine/society/where-are-all-the-women-hermits/

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2 thoughts on “On Jack Cardiff’s The Girl On A Motorcycle (1968)

  1. Jack Cardiff knows how to frame a shot, that’s for sure. His work on The Red Shoes will stay with me all of my days. Totally brilliant. It’s interesting to read your piece here. I must track this down.

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