Elizabeth Taylor meets Andy Warhol in Rome. What could go wrong?
Apparently, a lot. On July 8, Light Industry held a rare screening of Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1974 psychological drama, The Driver’s Seat. Based on the critically under-appreciated 1970 Muriel Spark novella by the same name, the film follows a deranged Englishwoman named Lise (Elizabeth Taylor) as she searches for an elusive man to murder her in Rome.
Despite having two huge names – Andy Warhol makes several bizarre appearances alongside Taylor – the film failed to attract much attention when it was first produced, according to NYU’s Eric Banks, who introduced the screening on Tuesday. According to Banks, both the Spark novella and the film adaptation were initially considered disappointments. The film itself is virtually nonexistent in Taylor’s biographies – if mentioned at all, it is usually in the context of her then highly-publicized divorce from Richard Burton.
To be fair, it’s a difficult film to watch. We never find out anything about Lise’s background: Who is this man that she is searching for? Why does she seek him out? What is she running away from?
When we meet Lise, she is buying a garish, brightly colored dress. After the saleswoman informs her that the dress is stain-resistant, she becomes offended and demands a non-stain-resistant dress. At the airport, she skips lines, complains about store prices, and yells at security officials. Once on the plane, she scares off the man sitting to her right and strikes up a conversation with the man on her left, who informs her of his macrobiotic diet and makes overt sexual advances. “You look like Red Riding Hood’s grandma,” she tells him. “Do you want to eat me?” Later, while that same man drives her to a hotel and assaults her along the way, she proclaims, “When I diet, I diet. And when I orgasm, I orgasm.” As Lise continues to search for the elusive man who will eventually murder her, she makes other strange pronouncements, befriends an elderly woman and accompanies her to a mall, gets caught up in a student riot, and is sexually assaulted by a cab driver.
Throughout, the narrative is broken up by scenes where the Italian police search for her (although we crucially never learn why). Her picture is flashed on screens yet, despite her outlandish appearance and strange behavior, no one seems to notice that she is a fugitive. The men and women she meets are stopped, arrested, interrogated – sometimes before they even appear on screen with Lise (“The passenger arrives a little ahead of themselves,” Lise notes at one point, in a meta nod to the film’s unorthodox chronology.)
If the renewed interest in Spark’s novella warrants a second look at the film, so too do the themes of political violence and the strange chronology, itself especially relevant in the age of mass surveillance. The interrogation scenes often take place before those being questioned have even met the suspect, and the hunt for the fugitive ensues before we ever learn of the crime – perhaps before a crime has even been committed. Enigmatic and disturbing, yet humorous and playful, The Driver’s Seat is that rare film that captures a mood 40 years before its time. (And if that’s not enough, did I mention Andy Warhol?)