Home Video Hovel- Girl on a Motorcycle, by David Wester
Girl on a Motorcycle opens with a rousing, spirited credit sequence, horns giddily blaring in the score and the names of cast and crew whooshing along with shots moving low and fast on an empty road (not nearly as technically competent as that of Lost Highway’s opening, but ultimately the same idea). There are more moments of such simple grandeur in the film that follows, but hardly enough to sustain the picture over its 90 or so minutes. Yet, while the film’s structure is wobbly and doesn’t adequately carry it from beginning to end, it is nevertheless an affecting tale of a woman torn between safety and passion. It’s directed and photographed by Jack Cardiff, a cinematographer of some note (The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus), and there’s enough sophistication in the handling of the material that the film, amazingly, rises above some of its weaker elements. The story follows the travels of an ennui-stricken housewife on the way to her sometime lover by way of a fetishized Harley Davidson. As she makes the journey, the film flashes back to her memories of the moments in her life that led her to this place of desperation. In so doing, it resembles something akin to Roger Corman’s Wild Strawberries with a dash of Belle de Jour thrown in for good measure.
But the structure’s a real pain, especially during the first third. This segment is suffused with an aimless air, the pace so very, very slack as to kill much goodwill. The heroine, adequately played by Marianne Faithful, rides the titular motorcycle toward her waiting lover and we’re treated to her thoughts in voice over. It is pretty much just her riding a motorcycle and thinking for what feels like half an hour, and I began hoping that someone else would show up to talk to her. While it’s nice that her thoughts are loose and stream-of-conscioussness, accurately reflecting the way one thinks on long car trips, they’re also not particularly insightful or well-utilized. Her passion and torment are incomprehensible at this point, as not enough context has been provided. Also problematic is the overuse of solarization effects, reflecting less her inner life and more a time-capsule 60s psychedelic aesthetic for its own sake. I could have used fewer filmic comparisons of her to a bird taking flight as well.
Once the flashbacks kick in, though, the movie does find a nice, though often silly, groove. We see, for instance, exactly why she should be unsatisfied of her well-meaning husband, why the stranger played by Alain Delon should obsess her so much (hint: the husband’s a “nice guy,” who, despite giving her what he thinks she wants, never gives her what she actually wants, nor does he bother to find out what that is and the lover is Alain Delon). It’s an oft-told tale, of course, the woman’s dilemma between the safety of tradition and the thrill of an illicit affair. And the film doesn’t find much new or surprising to do with it, other than throw in some shockingly naive of-the-time ruminations on the destruction of the institution of marriage at the hands of “free love” and equating the motorcycle with some kind-of instrument thereof. But still, there are the grand moments. One sequence, in particular, that shows a secretive tryst between her and Delon is astonishing. Here the use of the solarization effect, before seeming dated and solely commercial, is powerful and moving, like her orgasmic bliss has bled into the film, flashing onto the celluloid itself and destroying the image in the process. It ends on a freeze frame of her enraptured face and then slowly fades to red, and, as it did so, I realized I would never forget it.
The Girl on a Motorcycle ends in a classic cop-out, avoiding any attempt to follow through on the issues and difficulty in the protagonist’s life. I was, by then, truly invested in her plight and wanted to see the film end with a much more thought out resolution. It is, nevertheless, perfectly representative of the film itself. It’s a mixed experience, at times plodding and dull, at others thrilling and inventive. By the end, I was willing to forgive it the former and embrace the latter, but grudgingly so.
The remastered print on the Blu-Ray has your usual old film problems, with splotches, scratches, and the like. It still looks pretty great for a film of this age, and the cinematography is well-presented, fortunately so, as it’s the key to one’s enjoyment of the film (no surprise given Cardiff’s pedigree). The disc also features a trailer for the film, clearly sourced from a lower resolution digital file (there’s pixelation on the rounded corners), a threadbare gallery of posters and stills of the film, and a sparse but often interesting commentary from Cardiff (he likens the challenge he faced in the first third to making a James Joyce type story for film).