The Girl on a Motorcycle

(Jack Cardiff, UK/France, 1968)


The mainly British movie The Girl on a Motorcycle is a strange and bewitching object indeed.


Made to reflect the cultural and lifestyle changes of the 1960s, it was placed in the directorial hands of veteran Jack Cardiff – in his mid 50s at the time, and renowned for his work as a cinematographer stretching back to the 1940s, with (among others) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Joseph Mankiewicz and John Huston. Marianne Faithfull, still in the early years of her pop fame, is paired with a pipe-smoking Alain Delon.


To make the stew even stranger, the source material is a 1963 French novel, La motocyclette, by a specialist in highbrow literary erotica best known today for his long association with film director Walerian Borowczyk  – André Pieyre de Mandiargues. (The Margin, filmed by Borowczyk in 1976, is another of his creations.)


Writing in the early ‘70s in his book Sexual Alienation in the Cinema, Raymond Durgnat grouped The Girl on a Motorcycle with Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) and Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970). “Deprived of its Surrealism”, he commented – but nicely pumped up with a “gaudy visuality” reminiscent of Powell & Pressburger – Cardiff’s film “leaves us in little doubt that its heroine is at once Western Youth in general, Swinging London in particular, a female Wild One, a cavalry-scout for Women’s Lib, and a traveller from what begins as mere adultery but is destined for the New Morality”.


In other words – and in comparison with those neighbouring Swinging London movies – Cardiff’s portrait of the 1960s revolutions was, for Durgnat, a somewhat stodgy affair, as often happens when mainstream cinema tries to grab a slice of “modern youth”.


Setting matters of cultural authenticity aside, however, that “gaudy visuality” is, especially when re-seen today, a spectacle unto itself. And the film’s central obsession reads clearer than ever: an erotic longing which twists itself into a death-drive.


Note: Cristina Álvarez López and I subsequently made an audiovisual essay titled Death-Drive  about The Girl on a Motorcycle to inaugurate (October 2016) our monthly online series “The Thinking Machine” in de Filmkrant magazine. In it  (to cite our accompanying statement) we “assemble the two major types of movement relentlessly showcased in the film – an expansive, travelling movement through landscapes, and an inward, dreamily reflective movement associated with a very active zoom lens – in order to condense its central obsession”.

© Adrian Martin June 2016

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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