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1968's The Girl on a Motorcycle quickly became known, in the USA at least, as Naked Under Leather. Released just as the rating system was making nudity passable on American screens, it received much more visibility than the next year's Age of Consent, by the legendary director Michael Powell. Through his autobiography and the commentary on this disc, we know that ace cameraman-artist-turned director Jack Cardiff's aim was to express psychological sexual states in cinematic terms. Whether he succeeds or not is debatable. The Girl on a Motorcycle connected with audiences as a 'hot' youth fantasy. The concept came from a 'hot' novel by surrealist writer (and connoisseur of pornography) André Pieyre de Mandiargues. The idea of a girl in a one-piece leather outfit is said to originate with a female motorcycle racer known to the author. Attach the interesting, beautiful singer Marianne Faithful to the project, add the already notorious actor Alain Delon, and you have a show bound to attract some attention.
The story is thin. Rebecca (Marianne Faithful) is married to the loving and devoted Raymond (Roger Mutton), a man approved by her father, a bookstore owner (Marius Goring, of several Michael Powell classics). In flashback we learn that Rebecca has taken a lover, Daniel (Alain Delon), a professor from a neighboring country. After visiting him for a lovemaking session, Rebecca receives a gift, a new Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycle. Now she frequently dons a tight, form-fitting leather suit to ride the hundred miles or so across the border to be with Daniel.
That's basically all that happens. The movie consists of beautiful shots of Rebecca tooling through the countryside, stopping at cafés, and passing the same curious or disapproving border guards. In free-form fashion, with flashbacks to earlier episodes, we see Rebecca passing the time at a ski lodge with Raymond and their friends. Out of courtesy, the passive Raymond complies when Rebecca pushes him away. It appears that she takes Daniel as her part-time lover because she secretly wants to be treated more roughly. Offhand, that interpretation of the female yen for freedom seems more like misogyny: girls that want it on their own terms, are bad.
Jack Cardiff had definite artistic ideas about the uses of lighting in feature work, and here he extends his visual control to surreal and psychedelic special effects. In the very first scene he superimposes black birds around Rebecca, creating some disturbing images along with the obvious idea that a dark fate awaits our heroine. During several bike rides Cardiff uses his excellent communication skills with lab technicians to solarize the image, converting realistic images into color abstractions. While Les Reed's music plays and/or we hear the voices of Rebecca and Daniel praising the free life, rebellion and independence, we may be looking at an orange sky and a blazing green Rebecca, reduced to flat patterns of color. What's really being presented, of course, is imagery we associate with the light shows that accompanied '60s rock concerts. Cardiff's psychedelics are much less forced than some of the goofball clichés (and the lazy re-use of stock footage) that commonly passed for acid trips in the first A.I.P. drug films by Roger Corman.
The movie centers on Marianne Faithfull's presence, which is acceptable if not strong. The story does not call on her to do much in the way of conventional acting. She rides the motorbike but not in all scenes. Not only are substitute riders used for many long shots, many close-ups of Marianne utilize a bike attached to a truck or actually in a truck bed. But it looks better than rear projection or a travelling matte.
At a certain point The Girl on a Motorcycle hits the wall of restrained erotic filmmaking, and takes us no further into the liberated spirit of either the book source or the main character. There is certainly enough nudity to keep the skin hounds happy, and Ms. Faithful is certainly willing and able to make Rebecca seem both real and credible. But the show never takes the next step beyond an erotic charge, to create a surreal effect. If your thing is fantasizing leather costumes, this one is a winner. This suit appears to have been tailored to Ms. Faithfull's exact measurements (don't gain weight during filming!) and the wool lining must make wearing it feel like wearing a glove. I once described John Phillip Law's leather-clad Diabolik as a walking fetish, but before comic book camp sexuality there was always the Kenneth Anger examination of the leather cycle set in Scorpio Rising. And of course we have to let our minds wander to later examples: Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns or Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep. Hey, we might as well remind readers of the anarchic theme song "Black Leather Rock" from These are the Damned.
The Naked Under Leather concept gets a good workout here. Rebecca's costume indeed has a large ring attached to a zipper, which seemingly invites one to peel her like a banana. Although the movie has a sex scene or two it doesn't dwell on them, and Daniel doesn't seem to be overly obsessed with Rebecca's leather cat suit. It's all supposed to create a feeling of liberation for Rebecca. The daring costume, the vehicle associated with sexual fantasies, the adulterous affair flaunting the rules of society -- all are all there to express Rebecca's rebellion.
We receive and acknowledge the rebellion message in the first ten minutes of the film, and acknowledge Rebecca's desires without knowing her well or having much of an opinion about her. With the characters so underwritten, we hang in there mainly to see where it's all going. Oddly, the movie chooses a finish that in its own terms (visual symbols speak the truth) says that Rebecca's rebellion is bad news. A conservative moralist would claim that she's being punished for her sins. Film fans are more likely to be impressed by a road picture that uses a wham-bam surprise shock ending a year before Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider.
Kino Lorber/Jezebel's fine Blu-ray of The Girl on a Motorcycle takes the curse off this picture, which has been released previously in mis-framed versions with a weak image. Solarized pictures don't look good when they're faded and scratched, and Jezebel's terrific transfer convinces us that we're seeing a theater-worthy presentation. Colors are bright and rich -- the show seems filmed on the Franco- Swiss or Franco-German border, under perpetually overcast skies.
The fascinating Jack Cardiff offers a full-length commentary discussing the casting and the filming, but not too much insight into his career at this point. He's very big on technical details, and gives a good explanation of solarization, an effect he says that was difficult in 1968 but can now be achieved digitally with a single press of a button during a colorizing session. The provocative original trailer is present, and also a selection of stills. The reputation of The Girl on a Motorcycle should be enhanced by this quality presentation, Jack Cardiff's laudable fling into youth-cult erotic filmmaking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Girl on a Motorcycle Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.