A great many fans of Elizabeth Taylor declare that 1974’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT is her worst film. It isn’t — but it’s probably the least middlebrow thing she ever did.
It’s a pedigreed package: based on a Muriel Spark novella, filmed by a Neopolitan opera director with images burnished by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, featuring quirky appearances by a supporting cast including Mona Washbourne and Andy Warhol. The end result is confounding and disturbing like its literary source; yet what makes the film remarkable is how it states its case using a strong, tightly developed visual language. The film vocabulary of THE DRIVER’S SEAT encapsulates Spark’s metaphysical darkness in a world of optical meaning that holds its own hypnotic luminosity. It’s the cinematic equivalent of viewing a scorpion trapped in amber.
The movie’s lexicon of lens choices and camera moves meshes with the detached prose style of Muriel Spark. (Disclaimer: I have read a couple of her books but not the one this film was based on.) Also, as in her prose, the script’s timeline is splintered by frequent flash-forwards which then return to the core narrative. Yet, as an Italian production shot in Rome, there are none of the expansions in film space and gestural camerawork usually found in Cinema Italiano. The director, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, took the meaning and tropes of the book and articulated an icy and dispassionate view, keeping a graphic distance from locales and actors, instead of the usual embrace of figure and space employed by most of his contemporaries. The film is a primer on the aesthetic choice of creating and speaking through flat space, with most shots reading like a bas-relief or a fresco.
Reflecting the author’s aesthetics, the camera movements contain a Protestant linearity while — within the frame — persons and objects expand and contract like the mea culpas found in a crisis of Catholic guilt. Spark herself had a Jewish father but was raised Presbyterian, and later converted to Roman Catholicism, leading her to break off relations with her son who had converted to Orthodox Judaism. From this mulch of beliefs, THE DRIVER’S SEAT investigates and questions spiritual values, gender and the notion of victimhood as Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Lise, flees her Northern European home and job, flying to Italy where she intuitively knows she will find the right man to murder her and end her psychic torment. It’s a narrative that one can approach and contemplate yet never truly encompass.
Perhaps the director’s work in opera, where the score and text cannot be significantly altered, explains Griffi’s acumen in adapting Spark’s novella. But literary fidelity is only part of the scheme in the aesthetics of this movie.
For THE DRIVER’S SEAT is a subversive movie: its choice of material is disturbing; its casting offbeat; its visual clues and vocabulary are rebellious. Still the creative team was able to ride the tiger of its insurrection while issuing a project that artistically holds together — where all the elements ping off each other the way they always do in good works of art. It’s an A-List movie whose qualities belong in the finest of Underground Cinema. Just watching the film can make a viewer feel as if he or she is participating in something equally as seditious as Lise’s quest for a murderer.
But lots of moviegoers are uncomfortable with that feeling (and are uncomfortable with Underground aesthetics too), which is why this film has been swept under the rug of film history. Frankly it was my subconscious that led me to this movie, after I recently dreamed I was back in Italy working on a film, as I did for real in 1989, except that this time Elizabeth Taylor was along for the ride. The dream piqued my curiosity about THE DRIVER’S SEAT, about which I had previously only heard sketchy reports. Released in some markets as IDENTIKIT, the film suffered a schizo distribution, including bad home video releases. I’ve heard of people finding the DVD at dollar stores now and then but I found it at Amazon.