The road movie, escaping domesticity and discovering one’s identity

the road movieas any cinematographic genre leads its audience on a route with defined codes, bringing its share of cult films and specific expectations, oscillating between flight and the search for freedom.

The road, a moving and mystical symbol, marked the cultural history of the 20th century with its imagination. Internationally, this line of bitumen is associated with a country, the United States, with its culture, both literary and visual. The roads trips from the East Coast to the West Coast mark the spirits of their breathtaking landscapes, opening onto a world apart, that between towns and countryside, freedom and confinement.

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road. “Nothing behind and everything ahead, as always on the road. »

Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957

The roads movies convey a specific imaginary, anchored in a tradition of the frontier and the conquest inherited from the Western, but transposing them into a motorized modernity. In post western histories, ” the border becomes the road, the horse becomes the car, and the hero becomes a desire, perhaps Quixotic, for heroism (Roberts, 1997, p.66, personal translation). The majestic desert expanses suck in the actors and reinforce a solitude that is supposed to be synonymous with intellectual wisdom. I say actors and not actresses because, with a few exceptions, women are absent from these male fables escaping a domesticity considered stifling. In Westerns, only saloon performers are able to understand outlaws and cowboys, and on the road their absence or presence corresponds to a well-defined set of rules.

However the road movie holds its letters of nobility in its romantic treatment of the marginalized, it is the song of cursed souls and all those who do not correspond to the shackles of a codified society (Cohan and Hark, 1997, p.1). The road is an escape, the escape of a life that cannot meet the expectations of characters on the edge of a precipice. An escape taking place in dangerous environments, ready to absorb whoever wishes to plunge there. On the road, hope is vain, illusory, attractive as it is, the road is made of violence and loneliness.

Louison Larbodie©

If the road movie was not born with the Second World War, it remains a socio-historical phenomenon constantly renewing itself. On the road by Jack Kerouac, published in 1957, establishes the road in literature, but more broadly in culture, redefining the codes of travel across the United States. Four specific elements stand out and link the genre to a specific context, that which follows wars and the damage caused. Indeed, the road movie is considered a metaphor for the dislocation of the family unit, cause or effect of the journey undertaken by the characters who then find themselves caught up in events that they cannot control. Additionally, the characters of road movie identify themselves with the means of transport used. Finally, gender is associated with a male fantasy (ibid, p.2). This last characteristic still has a hard time today, since the genre is stereotypically associated with two movements.

On the one hand, the male duets, as in Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), flee all responsibility, in search of an alternative life on the other side of the border. Undeniably one of road movie the most iconic, Easy Rider gave rise to the subgenus of bud movie, marking its outcome with a fatality expressing the violence of a society unsuited to the marginalized. On the other hand, heterosexual couples also hit the road, but a certain neo-conservatism surrounds these films with a suffocating morality, as in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) where the evocation of sexuality can only end in brutal death.

Far from being confined to these narrow shackles, the road movie gradually emancipated itself to play with the established rules. First of all, it was able to go beyond the American borders, to export itself from Europe to Australia, making Wim Wenders, a German director, one of the cornerstones of the genre in the 1980s, in particular with Paris, Texas (1989). From this filmic transposition certain singularities have appeared. In Australia, an obsession with Australian stories mark directors dreaming of Hollywood. In the United States, the 1990s, the disillusionment brought about by Reagan, the Gulf War and the social and LGBTQA+ movements influenced gender. The road is no longer just for white men. From now on, “marginal and alienated”, women, gays, lesbians and people of color, can take the path of self-discovery to express their discomfort in a society that constantly oppresses them or even to find abandoned places and people ( ibid, p.12).

movies like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) or Priscilla, Mad of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994) paved the way, played codes to divert them. Thelma and Louisetakes up the characteristics of the bud movie to denounce the violence of American society towards women, their fallen dreams of domesticity and their fulfillment in a short-lived journey providing them with ephemeral and euphoric freedom. Violence is then only a reaction to those experienced daily. Thanks to this film, Ridley Scott opened up new debates in the early 1990s concerning domestic violence and rape.

On the other hand, after madmax, Priscillapresents certain specificities of Australian multiculturalism and rewrites the comic expectations with regard to a genre which in the Southern lands always mixes with another.
However, if the advances are real, certain stereotypes die hard. In Priscillawomen, aborigines and foreigners are either depicted in a succinct or degrading manner, and in Thelma and Louise, the only African-American present on screen is a cyclist smoking, what seems to be cannabis, while listening to soul music, and who, facing the trunk of a police car, has only one reflex, exhaling smoke as a final attack on the police. Fortunately, other films and other directors such as Spike Lee with Get on the Bus (1996) go beyond these clichés and show that if freedom is on the road, everyone should have access to it.

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