Few celebrated cinematographers have made the leap to auteur with success (Nick Roeg is a notable exception, though his films are often sumptuously bewildering), but even by the lackluster standards of most cameramen turned directors, Jack Cardiff’s career was wildly perverse. Primarily an anonymous thriller-smith after his remarkably fecund collaborations with Powell and Pressburger, he also made the first, and last, film to be shown in Smell-O-Vision, wherein theaters were equipped with an apparatus that sprayed plot-related olfactory stimulants. One wonders how a Blu-ray release of Scent of Mystery might accommodate its singular construction (a collection of scratch-and-sniff palettes, perhaps?), but until that’s sorted out, Kino’s 1080p release of 1968’s Girl on a Motorcycle exquisitely, by which I mean bearably, represents Cardiff as a meticulous schlock craftsman. Consisting primarily of the inner monologue of a leather-clad, blond biker, Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull), whose mind wanders as she drives from France to Germany to meet her similarly transient lover, Daniel (Alain Delon), the film vertiginously simulates the Summer of Love’s emancipatory values and Dayglow décor.
Like most ersatz-feminism from the same era, The Girl on a Motorcycle’s escape-from-domestic-oppression storyline makes its protagonist seem more irresponsible than iconically recalcitrant. At the film’s start, she sleeps beside her Swiss husband, Raymond (Roger Mutton), a man so impotent he can’t control a classroom of French youngsters; her dreams are a wild circus where she’s enslaved by the whims of two ringmasters, Raymond and the more mercurial, desirable Daniel. (Coincidentally, Faithfull would perform in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus during the same year, a taped-for-television studio concert that was later shelved until the ’90s and appears to have been inspired by Cardiff’s lysergic sets.)
Troubled, she soon sets off on her bike, wearing nothing under her leather one-piece. (“It’s like a second skin!” she whispers to herself as she pulls it on.) She occasionally flashes back to how she and her hubby met, as well as to when she first found time to cuckold him between fondue parties on a ski trip, and then to her motorcycle riding lessons with—swoon—Daniel. As she drives, the camera favors eyeline and low-angle shots that accentuate her power; in one scene, she literally blows the camera out of the road and into a flowerbed. And yet, despite the control she exerts over her vehicle, and the gaze of the audience, she isn’t entirely comfortable with her sexual prowess. She’s stopped by gendarmes and does nothing to keep one of them from fondling her. She stops for a beer and imagines unzipping her suit from neck to crotch to entertain a legion of leering pub patrons. If we’re seeing the world from her perspective, it’s curiously tinted. Her sexual liberation compartmentalizes the males in its periphery into three stringent categories: emasculated spouse, lecherous throng, and exaltedly seductive lover.
But this curved psychology, however reductive and patronizing, informs the most engrossing content in Girl on a Motorcycle, and also explains how the film can be so redolent of the ’60s while lacking stock footage of protests and anything resembling rock or go-go on the soundtrack. (Les Reed’s score pilfers heavily from Burt Bacharach’s brassy side.) Rebecca has the ’60s inside her, and it roars while exiting to bleed blues and reds and greens into the road ahead; never mind that the colors are actually the result of a video synthesizer. And though Cardiff can’t quite get inside her head, he excels at desexualizing her kookily erotic body, deconstructing the image of the girl on the motorcycle into feet pressed into kickstands, hands clenching handles, and not-necessarily-feminine curves resting against seats and plastic prongs. These shots are neither arresting nor arousing, but their splashy numbness achieves a kind of commercial hippy apotheosis; we get the thrill of putative freedom and the letdown afterward in unison.
Sixties schlock tends to outshine much less handicapped material in full 1080p, and this delightfully pristine transfer is no exception. The drab browns and grays of Rebecca's connubial life in Switzerland and France are awash with dust; her kaleidoscopic freedom is a perfervid wheel of hue that comes alive with Jack Cardiff's Technicolor mastery. Even the poor man's 2001 video effects are rendered with precision. The soundtrack consists mostly of whispers and faux-jazz trills that are more than audible in the stereo remaster.
The only real extra is intermittent commentary by a senescent Cardiff, who points out what scenes his son completed as a second unit director, and the transitions from on-location to in-studio filming. He provides likeably technical annotations, along with the occasional exclamation of "Well, that's a good shot, isn't it?"
More like Black Narcissus than anyone would care to admit, Girl on a Motorcycle imagines the distaff spirit as an uncontrollable orgy of speed and color.