Lise (Taylor), a vividly dressed, middle-aged woman with an affectless imperiousness to her manner that suggests mental health issues, flies from Hamburg to Rome.
She walks around as if in a dream, fighting off a series of importuning/rapey men, and goes shopping in a desultory fashion with a friendly older woman (Washbourne). Lise is strangely drawn to the Villa Borghese gardens. She even has a map marking a certain part of the gardens.
In flash forwards, the Italian police investigate the murder of a woman, interviewing the men and women who have had dealings with the victim over the last day or so. But was Lise the victim? If she was, was she actually a victim? Or did she seek an ultimate element of control in a secluded part of the Villa Borghese gardens?
It’s almost a giallo: think Footprints on the Moon or The Fifth Cord (both, incidentally, also photographed by Vittorio Storaro); but the relative middle age of the main female character and the extreme actorly creepiness of the male characters make The Driver’s Seat unusual and deeply unsettling.
The male characters fall out of the Muriel Spark source novel, I suspect, but Elizabeth Taylor is really laying it on the line here. Her character’s dresses, makeup and hair are extremely strange and over-wrought; and yet, one imagines that they speak volumes about the actress herself at the time. Her deadzone manner mixed with her sense of entitlement are incredibly distancing too.
Almost everything about this film is repulsive. Not just the characters. It’s hard to have sympathy with Lise let alone the unbelievably creepy macrobiotic food fan Bill (Bannen), or the would-be rapist Carlo (Mannari), or the murderous “victim” Pierre (Mailfort). But even Vittorio Storaro’s luminous cinematography, with its high level of lens reflection, is literally wooze-inducing to watch.
The film is at its most engaging when it lets Storaro do his thing, placing actor-ciphers in modernist or other artificially lighted environments which suggest the characters’ displacement from reality.
There’s some interesting, off the wall extras, as usual from the BFI:
- Introduction by Kier-La Janisse, author of House of Psychotic Women (2022, 6 mins)
- Audio commentary with curator and programmer Millie De Chirico (2022)
- A Lack of Absence (2022, 22 mins): writer and literary historian Chandra Mayor on Muriel Spark and The Driver’s Seat
- Darling, Do You Love Me? (1968, 4 mins): in a parody of her media persona, Germaine Greer stars as a terrifyingly amorous woman who pursues a man relentlessly
- Waiting For… (1970, 11 mins): a woman embarks on a filmmaking project after being given a camera and told to capture her everyday reality
- The Telephone (1981, 4 mins): a young woman enacts imaginative revenge on her boyfriend
The Driver’s Seat is out on BFI Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon Prime from 26 June 2023.