Naked Under Leather: Marianne Faithfull Reminisces About Girl on a Motorcycle
Naked Under Leather, Part 1: Marianne Faithfull in the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
It’s easy to forget Marianne Faithfull has been acting as long as she’s been singing. Obviously her musical career as rock’s quintessential tortured torch singer has dominated the popular imagination, but over the decades she’s had an erratic but interesting sideline as an actress in films, stage and television. She’s worked with art cinema auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard (Made in the USA, 1966) and Kenneth Anger (Lucifer Rising, 1972), and on the other extreme schlock-meister Michael Winner: Marianne Faithfull was the first person to say the word “fuck” in a mainstream studio film (she screams, “Get out of here, you fucking bastard!” to Oliver Reed in the Winner’s 1967 I’ll Never Forget What’sisname). More classily, she’s performed in Chekhov’s Three Sisters onstage (1967) and portrayed Ophelia both onstage and onscreen (1969), and Marie Antoinette’s mother, the Empress of Austria, in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette (2006). Faithfull has a new film (Belle du Seigneur) due out in 2012.
Perhaps suitably for someone with such a wild child / bad girl /fallen angel image, Faithfull’s filmography seems conceptually bookended by two notorious sexually explicit films maudits: the kitsch soft core sexploitation flick Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and the strange, low-budget indie black sex comedy Irina Palm (2007) in which she plays a respectable suburban grandmother turned Soho sex worker. In most of her film work, Faithfull appears in supporting roles – decades apart, these both represent her two cracks as leading lady.
In the past Faithfull has spoken dismissively about the campy Girl on a Motorcycle (alternate titles: Naked Under Leather in the US and La Motocyclette in France) as an embarrassing disappointment and source of regret. Certainly in her lacerating 1994 autobiography Faithfull, she mentions it only in passing. “I made a couple of terrible films that year” is pretty much all she has to say about both I’ll Never Forget Whatshisname and Girl on a Motorcycle, while noting her gorgeous leading man on the latter (32-year old French heartthrob Alain Delon) made an arrogant, desultory (and unsuccessful) pass at her. (She was still with Mick Jagger at the time).
The trailer for Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
Happily, Faithfull’s attitude has since mellowed considerably and she’s now able to look back at Girl on a Motorcycle with affection. When I interviewed her in January 2011 for Nude magazine about her latest CD Horses and High Heels, I seized the opportunity to ask her about it. (This didn’t make the final cut of the article). She told me:
“I had no idea it was going to become such a cult movie, that people would still like it so many years after. I didn’t really like it at the time; I thought it was a bit stupid! But I loved (director) Jack Cardiff and I was very grateful to Jack Cardiff for making me look so beautiful. He really did. I mean, the lighting – the whole thing is just gorgeous. So I’m very grateful for that, that one day I’m able to look back at Girl on a Motorbike (sic) and say, Wow! That wasn’t too bad. And also, I think one of the most lovely things about Girl on a Motorbike is, do you know where it’s most popular? In India! I saw it myself, the first time I saw it was in Delhi, in Hindi. And it was absolutely great, but what was really great was how much the Indian audience loved it. And even now on the net there are articles – long, evaluating articles about this film. I’m delighted!”
It’s been years since I’ve seen Girl on a Motorcycle, but for such a trashy and misjudged film it made an indelible impression on me. The first time I ever saw it was circa 1992 when I first moved to London, onscreen at the much-missed, wonderfully dilapidated and grungy art house cinema The Scala, in Kings Cross when it was still a really seedy and dangerous neighbourhood. It was on a typically inspired Scala double bill, paired with Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), another biker-themed exploitation film of the same vintage starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra.
The risible dialogue in Motorcycle is truly dreadful and makes it one of those so-bad-it’s good, unintentionally funny and perversely enjoyable films. I definitely remember a sequence where Faithfull (as frustrated young bride Rebecca, abandoning her callow husband to be with her intellectual French lover Daniel, played by Delon) zooms past a graveyard on her glistening black Harley-Davidson and rhetorically ponders in the voiceover, “Why don’t the dead rebel?” Her worldview, she exclaims, is “Rebellion is the only thing that keeps you alive!”
Poor Faithfull actually has to do a lot of ersatz hippie / revolutionary 1960s philosophising in the interminable voiceover, over seemingly endless footage of her astride her bike zipping across lush European countryside. (The footage of her “driving” is clearly fake – it’s been pointed out Faithfull never turns the motorcycle’s handlebars). Zipping herself into her sensational ultra-fetish-y fleece-lined, skin-tight black leather cat suit, she muses, “It’s like skin. I’m like an animal.” Later, when Rebecca and Daniel are finally reunited, she lies across his lap and instructs him, “Peel me ...” As he begins to unzip her cat suit, a stony-faced Delon purrs in his thick French accent, “Your body is like a beautiful violin in a velvet case.” Later, lovingly contemplating Faithfull’s bare feet, he solemnly intones, “Your toes are like little tombstones ...” (I suspect Delon – who would go on to work with all the major European art cinema directors in his distinguished career – has wiped Girl on a Motorcycle from both his résumé and his memory).
To be fair, though, Motorcycle has its fluffy redemptive charms. For better or for worse, it’s a real period piece: the clothes, music, decor and whole ethos are pure 1960s pop art -- the film is catnip for aficionado of kitsch. The psychedelic sex scenes remain eye-popping. Jack Cardiff is far better known (and skilled) as a cinematographer than a director and while the film’s acting is stilted and the pace fatally sluggish, he ensures the film looks spectacular – especially the adoring close-ups scrutinising Faithfull’s exquisite face. Perhaps the best you can say about Girl on a Motorcycle finally is it documents the 21-year old Faithfull at the height of her 1960s beauty: throughout she suggests an English rose version of Brigitte Bardot. (Delon looks pretty devastating, too). The image of Faithfull in her sleek, clinging cat suit, with her mane of tousled blonde hair remains – alongside Bardot singing "Harley-Davidson" in her 1968 TV special in mini skirt and thigh boots, Jane Fonda as Barbarella and the album covers of the go-go booted Nancy Sinatra – one of the definitive archetypes of the 1960s sex kitten.
Naked Under Leather, Part 2: Faithfull photographed in Paris by Helmut Newton circa 1978-1979, around the time of her post-punk comeback album Broken English
Naked Under Leather, Part 3: Faithfull photographed by Helmut Newton again, in 1999
Naked Under Leather, Part 4: The 64-year old Faithfull in 2011. Promotional shot for her new CD Horses and High Heels