Symbolic Cycling in Films

I watched two films over the past week, and it so happens that both not only featured scenes with bicycles, but used these scenes in a similar manner.

Therese and Isabelle is a black and white film c. 1968 based on the novel by Violet Leduc. It is a coming-of-age story about a doomed love affair between two girls at a French boarding school. In the first half of the film, there is a scene where the girls are cycling along an endless tree-lined alley and laughing. (Not that it matters in the context of the film, but they are riding beautiful mixtes with hammered fenders and dynamo lighting.) This is probably the happiest and most idyllic point of the film - where joy, freedom, and limitless possibilities are the dominant themes. Later it all ends badly, but the cycling scene is the antithesis of the tragic ending.

The Sheltering Sky is a 1990 Bertolucci film starring John Malkovich, based on the novel by Paul Bowles. It is about an aristocratic composer and his beautiful wife, who aimlessly travel around North Africa while trying to overcome complex marital difficulties. This film too ends badly. But before things go downhill, there is a bicycle scene - where the husband and wife are traveling through a stretch of the Sahara on his and hers Roadsters, with cream tires and rod brakes. Unlike any of the other trips they take together, this one is infused with positive emotion and hope for a future.

Though the two films could not be more different from one another, the bicycle plays the same symbolic role in both: representing hope, joy, freedom, and simplicity. At the same time, in both films the bicycle is also used as a symbol of the unsustainable. "It is not possible for things to stay this good," the cycling scenes suggest, thereby foreshadowing an eventual tragic ending. In order for these associations to work as cinematic tools - which in both films they do - there has to be a deeply ingrained cultural perception of the bicycle as a symbol of escapism and wishful thinking; the bicycle is something that is incompatible with "real life". And this to me was very interesting to notice. Something to think about, at least.


  1. I had not put it together like that before, something to think about for sure. Perhaps it would be time for the free and joyous cycling scene to come at the end of a film, with hope? One can always dream.

  2. It might say as much about the stories, their writers, the films, their directors, and the audience as it does about bicycles, this line of thinking, but yes - most stories, most lives, have a beginning, middle, and end. One can hope to have a great bicycle their whole life, but many don't. I do.

    There's a picture of me at four years of age sanding the frame of a bike my dad picked out of the garbage before we repainted it. Everything was blue. Tires, grips, frame, basket, blue.

    I miss the Raleigh Big Horn MTB of my teens, and have seen many in the pawn shops of this city, but look on them with fond nostalgia and don't desire one anymore. I used to.

    The eldest folks I see in Toronto on bicycles are a motley crew. Haggard, homeless, bedraggled, often, but also their antitheses - stylish, vivacious folks out enjoying themselves.

    What must have been a 90 year old on a 26" wheeled tricycle crossed my path just yesterday.

    I once dated a film maker, and she bought a stolen CCM, likely from the 1960s, from a homeless guy that summer. She refused to lock it and left it outside the back door at our apartment, and of course, it was stolen. She left the 1972 Peugeot moped I bought her out in the rain, time and again, and ruined it. And left me.

    Storytellers love drama - so to my mind, it's no wonder they can make such a fuss about bicycles as a symbol of good times to be lost.

  3. In Pee-Wee's big adventure one could interpret the bicycle on similar lines - an expression of Pee-Wee's innocence and being out of touch with reality.

    Jeff Goldblum commutes by bike in Independence Day. His bike riding is symbolic of his eccentricity. Ultimately he is a Cassandra figure. That is, he predicts doom, no one believes him, but the doom eventually comes.

    Thanks for pointing out those two films. This is an interesting exercise, looking at how the bicycle is portrayed in film. I'd sum up most of these examples as "unsustainable innocence." Which is ironic since the bike is the height of what we would call "sustainability" these days.

  4. Very interesting and thought-provoking!

  5. I quite like your discovery and movie taste :). Watching films starring bikes in that way is rather pleasant. On the other hand, I really hate some Hollywood movies where the "rule" loser/nerd=cyclist is used extensively. Wrote about it last year here.

  6. Definitions of "real life" fascinate me. Is the definition of real life based on conformity, chasing the dollar, or abandonning our hopes and dreams? Is that the American definition or do most Western cultures share it? Does the pursuit of happiness and belief in hope and the attainment of dreams necessarily mean one is choosing not to deal with real life? With the economic and policy choices we are struggling with now here and abroad, I think this is an important question we have to address.

  7. this is lovely. your descriptions are spot on - id like to view both films soon again
    have a great weekend ;-)

  8. That's the 'dominant' 'real life' in Hollywood ( or could I say in the general also :p ... No offence intended ..just academic) ... not in the rest of the world ,viz: S.America, Europe (esp. in the east) and espeecially in Asia! I've lived long enough in Europe and spend long enough time in Asia - observing (and transiently 'living') their 'real-life'. ;):p

  9. I have to say, I do feel like a lot of people have that essential view of the bicycle - they remember it fondly as a means of freedom and enjoyment, but they don't ride one now because they simply feel they can't - either because they aren't in shape, or it's too dangerous, or they have to go too far, or whatever. There are a million and one reasons why people feel these things, and I think it largely has to do with the way our cities and transportation systems have developed, and some cultural aspects like wanting separation from other people.

    It's interesting to think about how people's views of things show up in the things they create. These directors may view the bicycle as an ideal which is now hopeless to attain, given where we've gotten to (then again, given their films, they may be tilted rather pessimistically anyway). You might be able to go for a weekend ride here and there, but it's never going to really become a part of your life.

    Here's hoping they're wrong :)

  10. in this way, the bicycle is not too far away from the motorbike.
    both symbolise the 'unsustainable'.
    and in fact both lose all of that and all their romantic appeal when driven with a helmet.
    motorcycles turn into machines or weapons. bicycles completely disapear.

  11. As reflected in the comments, the bicycle as a symbol can be read in many ways. I think most people who have ridden a bicycle remember its pleasurable sense of self-propelled motion as fun and joyous (even if they are so unfortunate as to no longer allow themselves to experience it again firsthand.) Both movies are about the relationship between two people, and it's hard to think of an activity that would help convey a sense of friendship and romance between the characters better than an idyllic bicycle ride.

    iron fish

  12. Some recent movies I have watched where a bike or cyclist is an important part of the movie:

    Death of a Cyclist "Mort dun Cycliste" Spain 1955 and it is part of The Criterion Collection. Very Hitchcock.

    Protektor Czech Republic 2009. Incredible cinematography right from the start with a bicycle.

  13. Let's not become obsessive and invoke a SELF-FULLING prophecy! ;p

    In the most part of my life I'am young cyclist (a vivacious one, I'm told ...:D HAAAHAAA ... what do those sychophants want from me!!? :D ) and THEREFORE in the most part of my life I'm free from any hangover for (/because) the greater part of what is on Earth is mine to meet or find, to pick and to enjoy ... and from the small part that remains I squeeze out what I could between my mind and education (/training) for my physical survival and temporal needs, comfort and pleasure.

    Don't let other people's choice for morbidity be yours also. :p

    So go ride safely your bike(s) and be happy as I'm. :D

    SMILE & be happy ... for life is too short for anything else!.

    truly yours, Lemony. ;)

  14. Thanks for the interesting feedback. I'll check out the movies mentioned. I do not intentionally watch "movies with bicycles in them", which makes it all the more strange that I saw 2 in a row last week!

  15. I've never seen either of these movies, but they sound lovely. Personally, I think the classic bicycle just begs to be linked with pleasure, freedom, friendship... (well, except in China, apparently -


Post a Comment