Jack Cardiff’s The Girl on a Motorcycle is a fascinating artifact of the Sixties, an impressionistic exploration of the mind of a young woman who yearns for freedom, starring none other than singer Marianne Faithfull. While Cardiff may be best remembered as the cinematographer of classics like The African Queen, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, he had a no less interesting career as a director, helming an eclectic output that included films like The Long Ships and Sons and Lovers. The Girl on a Motorcycle falls comfortably into the biker genre that had become well-established at that point thanks to films like The Wild One, but it’s far more concerned with the interior life of its title character than it is in her actions. It’s the biker film as a personal journal.
Cardiff and screenwriter Ronald Duncan adapted The Girl on a Motorcycle from the 1963 novel La Motocyclette by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (although they had some assistance on the dream sequence dialogue by Gillian Freeman). The story, such as it is, revolves around Rebecca (Faithfull), a newlywed who leaves her schoolteacher husband (Roger Mutton) to go on a cross-country motorcycle trip in search of her former lover Daniel (Alain Delon). That’s about it as far as the narrative is concerned. As with many quest sagas, however, The Girl on a Motorcycle is more about the journey than the destination. Rebecca’s real goal is liberation, and she achieves that personal freedom from the first moment that she leaves home. In that sense, whether or not she actually reaches Daniel is of secondary importance. Yet it’s hard to ignore the fact that the film still punishes her for her freedom—or to be more accurate, since much of what she achieves is revealed to have been fantasy, it punishes her for her desire for freedom. That’s a bitter pill to swallow at what should have been the dawn of a more enlightened age.
The Girl on a Motorcycle ended up being the first film to receive an X rating in the United States under the new MPAA rating system, due to some nudity that’s pretty tame by contemporary standards. As a result, it was re-edited to achieve an R rating, and released domestically under the more lurid title Naked Under Leather. Cardiff wasn’t involved in that process, and he ended up disowning the censored version. Both of those restrictive ratings are rather ironic considering the film still satisfies the older Production Code requirement that characters be penalized for their transgressive behavior. For a film that revels in both the sexual revolution of the Sixties and the newfound artistic freedom that accompanied it, that’s a surprisingly old-fashioned perspective—though to be fair, it’s also a convention of the biker genre that even New Hollywood filmmakers like Dennis Hopper followed. The more that some things change, the more that others stay the same.
Despite Cardiff’s impeccable bona fides as a cinematographer, he was usually required to use another DOP on the projects that he directed. The Girl on a Motorcycle was a rare exception to that rule, with Cardiff shooting it himself on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, framed at 1.66:1 for its theatrical release. This version utilizes a new 4K restoration, presumably taken from a scan of the original negative wherever possible, but the nature of the production means that a significant quantity of dupe elements would have to been involved as well. Cardiff used a lot of multilayered imagery in the film, featuring dissolves and superimpositions that had to be generated on an optical printer. He also used solarization effects that were created on standard definition video, transferred to film, and then layered with other elements. Even when footage from the negative was involved in the restoration, Cardiff made use of diffusion filters at times, and much of the film is bathed in fog that provides its own natural diffusion. All of that affects the level of fine detail visible in this transfer, and it also softens the contrast. With those caveats out of the way, this is still an impressive restoration. It’s as sharp as it can be, given the circumstances, with a beautiful array of colors when they’re called for, like when an intensely purple snowsuit stands out against the white of the snowy background. The red lighting and scarlet production design in the ski lodge are equally striking. Yet the skin tones are always natural, regardless of how stylized that the other colors may be. There’s no significant damage on display, other than a hair in the corner of the screen during one of the montages, but that may have been present in the original composite. It’s an accurate presentation of a film that simply won’t ever look like reference material.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Aside from the brash, ostentatious score by Les Reed, the track generally sounds compressed, with limited fidelity. The majority of the dialogue was clearly post-synced, and it doesn’t always integrate well into the soundstage, but it’s still clear and comprehensible.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Girl on a Motorcycle includes a reversible insert that features two different theatrical poster designs on each side, as well as a slipcover that duplicates the front side of the insert. The following extras are included:
The commentary with Jack Cardiff was originally recorded for the 1998 Roan Group LaserDisc, but it’s been included on a variety of different DVD and Blu-ray versions since then. Cardiff describes the film as a fascinating challenge, since he had to find a way to visualize Rebecca’s stream-of-consciousness thought processes. He offers plenty of information about the techniques that he used, including the solarization effects, and also describes the various camera rigs that were used to shoot the riding sequences (including a rotating one attached to an Austin Mini Moke, which must have been a sight to behold). He says that the heavy fog during the French sequences was a happy accident. Speaking of accidents, he also talks about what’s real and what’s fantasy in The Girl on a Motorcycle, and admits that he probably should have done more to clarify the difference between the two. Cardiff’s memories of making the film were still sharp forty years down the road, so it’s a valuable track, even if it’s a bit sparse at times.
The second commentary features author and film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and was newly-recorded for this edition. Since she specializes in gender politics, she examines The Girl on a Motorcycle from the point-of-view of the intersection between feminism and the biker genre. She draws from some interesting sources in that project, including the late Joan Didion’s 1979 collection The White Album. She does see The Girl on a Motorcycle as a personal journey to independence, and while she addresses the questions raised by the ending, she ultimately leaves the answers up in the air. It’s possible that Rebecca is being punished for her sexuality, but it’s equally possible that all of that is nothing more than a gendered twist on the traditional biker narrative, where it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Either way, that’s up to individual viewers to decide for themselves. Like Cardiff’s track, there are a few lengthy gaps, but the enthusiasm that Heller-Nicholas has for the film is infectious—she describes it as “a banger of a movie,” and one of her top ten or twenty favorite films of all time. That’s exactly the kind of person that needs to be brought in for a commentary track on a film like this.
The Girl on Motorcycle won’t be for all tastes, since it’s both a landmark of the Sixties and an artifact of that era, in roughly equal measures. Seen through a modern lens, it manages to be both provocative and quaint at the same time. It certainly won’t make many people’s top twenty lists, but it’s still an important film, and Kino’s new Blu-ray offers a lovely new transfer and some nicely supportive extras. It’s well worth a look.
– Stephen Bjork
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