Recently Rated Movies #60: The Right Girl in the Wrong Film

Girl On A Motorcycle
aka La Motocyclette aka Naked Under Leather
Director: Jack Cardiff // 1968, French-British
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

I think that I finally understand Marianne Faithfull…

About a week ago, I was overjoyed that I was able to see on What’s My Line? an old 1967 appearance by the famous
English model Jean Shrimpton, if for no other reason than it made more vivid in my mind the references to her which I have run across in books, movies and music for the past thirty years or so. Certainly, at any moment that I wished, I could go online or to the library and simply look up as much information on Miss Shrimpton as I could care to have… but that’s not the way the game works…

The game works on chance encounters, on trivial missteps, on taking corners at the right time, and on making connections that may have been apparent to others all along but do not make sense to you until you have made just the right connection. I had seen pictures of Miss Shrimpton over the years, and knew much about her. But until I saw her appear as the Mystery Guest on Line, I didn’t really understand her appeal. Suddenly, another portion of the ‘60s, the decade in which I was born, became rock solid in my mind, and another step towards understanding the mindset of those times become much firmer perch on which I might trod casually.

It has always been, for reasons truly odd to even myself, important for me to make connections in this way. While I do take heed when people recommend items of note within their own interests to me, or if they seek to inform of some mindless ort of knowledge which might help further whatever quest in which I might currently be involved, I have always preferred seeking out my own answers in most cases. What’s more fun? Someone telling you that there is a new band that you simply must hear, or stumbling onto these band through your own, often misguided, devices. And much of the time, I downright blunder into these answers or discoveries. But whether by need, purpose or by accident, I always relish that moment when something becomes clearer to me in this manner.

This might seem like an odd way to start a post about seeing an old movie starring Marianne Faithfull, but it’s the way that I need to start it. The movie, Girl on a Motorcycle, in which Marianne zips about on a motorbike for an hour and a half reflecting on her adulterous affair with the devilishly handsome Alain Delon, isn’t even a very good movie. It’s not even a merely good one. It’s pretentious, vain, has Delon (whom I normally admire) sleepwalking through what is actually a glorified cameo, and the film is mired with a score of scenes in which the use of filters on the lens stands in for clever cinematography. That it was directed by the Oscar-winning lensman Jack Cardiff (and former crony of The Archers) is only slightly surprising, because when he isn’t busy going all psychedelic with his camera, the work is very sharp and well-designed. Overall, it’s the very definition of what made me hate the more arty or self-consciously hip films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s so sharply as a youth (a feeling with which I obviously have been able to come to grips, and am able to now judge each movie individually on its own merits, no matter the time period.)

So, what’s worthwhile here if everything else is wrong with the film? Faithfull, that’s what. Because at no point in its 94 minutes did I feel like I was wasting my time with the girl, not with Marianne pouring herself into a tight leather suit and taking to the road for about 73 of those 94 minutes. (Just guessing…) Perhaps she was not even all that great an actress at that very nubile point in her life. What she does on the screen in this movie is breathe, and through her every breath comes more than enough zest and energy to carry one off to follow the lovely girl wherever she might ride. This urge is increased in measure by the fact that Master Cardiff makes no bones about filming his star provocatively, with his camera capturing at least a score of close-ups on her leather-clad rear and groin, not to mention teasing flashes of her bared breasts from time to time. If its not a score, or if its even more – whatever the count, it’s enough to make one check the movie guide to make sure this film actually isn’t one of Russ Meyer’s calmer moments.

In fact, what the film could use is a solid dose of Meyer’s raunch and humor. Instead, it is quite clear where this film is heading from the start (and no, I have never even gotten remotely near a copy of the novel which forms the film’s source material, so there is no way I could have known going in what I was in for), and the film is all the more insufferable for not giving its heroine a way out of the tragedy that looms over her. Why motorcycles always had to spell cinematic doom for their riders (especially in those days) is something I have never understood. Is it payback for daring to dream of easy freedom? And the bike doesn’t represent Faithfull’s character’s dream of freedom is only aided by the bike, which merely is used to carry her away from her wimp schoolteacher husband, who loves her easily and outright, and into the arms of a caddish man who doesn’t care for her except as a sexual and masochistic conquest. Her character is merely another silly girl – in a long, sad line of silly movie girls -- who doesn’t really know what she wants, and simply longs for the man who treats her worst. If her ultimate tragedy is to destroy her so she can find freedom within a death that takes her away from the living tragedy the film’s creators placed her in, then they are being misogynistic on multiple levels.

But Faithfull’s presence more than makes up for the story’s bountiful missteps, because the strength of the film is that we get to see her at this very vital early stage of her long career: when she was the sexual partner to Mick Jagger and creative muse and sometimes partner to the rest of the Stones, when she greeted cops at a drug bust wearing only a fur rug, and when she released her own series of groundbreaking albums. (To this point, I own exactly one song by her, her early '80s title track for Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind, wonderfully croaked by the then vocally altered, middle-aged Faithfull.) We see a rising star at the peak of her youthful exuberance and cheekiness, and even if the film itself is no good, you just can’t stop watching her because of this. She will spend ten straight minutes zipping across the Swiss and German landscapes, muttering half-baked dialogue in a voiceover, and for some strange reason, I will keep watching this nonsense.

And only for her. Because, finally, due to my viewing
Girl on a Motorcycle more than forty years after its release, I made the connection within my head. A line now runs from Marianne Faithfull to the rest of the clutter in there, and she is no longer just a name I know because I know a lot about people connected to her. Because, finally, I think that I understand her…


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