The Driver’s Seat (1974)
Directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
Written by Raffaele La Capria and Giuseppe Patroni Griffi based on the novel by Muriel Spark
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Ian Bannen, and Andy Warhol
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro
A woman wanders through a room filled with naked mannequins, their faces covered in tinfoil. She studies them carefully, looking for something she doesn’t find. She tries on a colorfully patterned dress in the changing room, and ecstatically proclaims to the saleswoman that the dress is hers, that it’s a perfect blend of natural colors, and that she’s going to the South for a vacation, where people understand colors. The saleswoman remarks that the dress will be very practical for her vacation, since the fabric is specially treated to resist stains. The customer tears off the dress, furious at the suggestion, nearly on the brink of some kind of a meltdown, and shouts accusations at the saleswoman before the manager runs over and explains calmly that they have a non-treated dress also available. And so, The Driver’s Seat introduces Lise, played by Elizabeth Taylor, as a woman defined by a strange idiosyncratic logic, a woman who would rather burst into rage than clue anyone in on what makes her tick. The brilliance of Taylor’s performance is that we never doubt that there is some form of mad logic driving it all.
The film, then, achieves a strange fascination as we watch Lise ricochet from one bizarre encounter to another while on a vacation following a mysterious breakdown in the recent past. Throughout the film, people continue to make remarks about Lise’s dress. A woman sweeping her building laughs hysterically and asks if she is going to join the circus. A man on the airplane remarks on another man’s panic as he suddenly jumps out of his seat next to Lise and runs away: “He was frightened of your psychedelic dress, terrified! But I’m not.” The non-linear narrative establishes that Lise is wanted for some kind of crime, but although many people recognize her from newspaper clippings and describe her to the police as the woman in the colorful dress, she is never pursued by the police. The story also depicts the interrogations of people Lise encounters. They frequently describe events that have not yet unfolded in the story; a technique I don’t think I’ve seen in any other film. When we hear a character describe his encounter with Lise, we immediately form some image of it in our head. When the events later unfold on screen, the images are not what we expected – not through any misinformation on the part of the witnesses, but through the inherent conflict of imagination and literal representation. It’s like watching the film adaptation of a book you know intimately (The Driver’s Seat was in fact adapted from a bestseller).
The piano music score reminded me of a classic 1950s melodrama. The high camp reminded me of an Andy Warhol production (Warhol makes a brief cameo as a royal diplomat). The random terrorist bombings that have no bearing on the plot reminded me of Buñuel’s literal interpretation of Andre Breton’s quotation, “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” The psychosexual investigation of Lise reminded me of Polanski’s Repulsion, as when Lise screams at airport security, “I can’t stand being touched”, wards off various men attracted to her beauty, fights off a rapist, and utters lines such as “I’m not interested in sex. I’m interested in other things.” Yet despite its references – some of which might be unintentional – the film is nothing if not thrillingly unique, and the precise nature of those “other things” Lise is interested in constitutes the central mystery of the film.
Lise repeatedly claims she’s in Rome to “meet someone”, and as we begin to suspect that such a person does not exist in reality, we also wonder if this mysterious “someone” might exist in her imagination. An old woman asks if she’ll recognize the right man when she “feels a presence”, to which Lise replies, “Not so much a presence, as the lack of an absence.” The old woman is also looking for someone – her nephew – who she wants to set up with Lise. In the end, it turns out that the two women are looking for the same person.
But first, Lise must endure a series of absurdist encounters with slightly sinister men who are never her type. One of them seeks to seduce her by discussing his macrobiotic diet, which dictates that he must “have an orgasm per day.” Lise, however, insists, “When I diet, I diet, and when I orgasm, I orgasm. I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures.” She finally finds the man who jumped up and ran away from her on the airplane, the man who apparently she has been searching for ever since and who is also (probably) the old woman’s nephew. This man, terrified of Lise’s sexuality, conventionally handsome and yet completely emasculated – this is the man who must murder Lise. The near-final scene in which Lise alternately coaxes, orders, instructs, and pleads with this man to kill her, is a brilliant showcase of Taylor’s unrestrained talent. The man does not want to do it, but seems incapable of escaping some invisible force that Lise exerts over him. When, after showing the man where and how to stab her, she loses patience and screams “Kill me! Kill me! Kill me!”, he asks, tenderly, if she’ll love him. She replies in the affirmative, and he stabs her three times as instructed.