The Driver’s Seat (Griffi) 1974
BFI Blu Ray 2023
Firstly the power of a title – The Driver’s Seat: as a metaphor, ironic or not, meaning to be in total control of the situation and taking full responsibility. Too often it means being on top of things through male dominance. In Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s strange and visually striking film we have a female protagonist who’s very much in charge of her destiny. The mentally disturbed Lise (superbly realised by Elizabeth Taylor) is looking for a man to kill her. Not because she has an incurable illness, feels suicidal and desires assistance, or is even that mad. Nor does she want to be the victim of a sex crime – when Lise encounters an assortment of men she insistently cries out ‘No sex!’ She’s intent on controlling the man she selects and yet retain her freedom and moral agency. The murder even requires Lise’s killer to obey precise instructions on how to tie her down and stab her with the knife she’s purchased. Such a bleak and powerful Thanatos compulsion makes for The Driver’s Seat being one of the darkest and most perverse films about female responsibility ever made.
The Driver’s Seat comes from Muriel Spark’s 1970 novel of the same name. In the book we learn that Lise, suffering from months of illness, has been working at the same accounts office for 16 years. She is now 34. In the film Elizabeth Taylor, then aged 45, looks in her late thirties. But Griffi’s film doesn’t even hint at a minimal back story. All we are shown is a very tired Lise living in Hamburg and in need of a vacation. Boarding a flight to Rome we witness Lise’s odd distraction and paranoia as she goes through customs and security. She’s wearing an attention-seeking dress deliberately chosen not to be stain-free, for a badge of blood, indelible proof, of her achieved fate, must be revealed. Her striped, multicoloured, almost psychedelic, outfit is provocative – on leaving home her housekeeper, laughing out loud, declares that Lise looks like an animal at the zoo.
On the plane Lise says to a young man named Pierre (Maxence Mailfort) ‘You look like Red Riding Hood is your grandmother.’ He is definitively “her type” to commit the crime. Disturbed Pierre quickly changes his seat. Lise’s other seated passenger is Bill (Ian Bannon). He’s a lecherous business man, promoting macrobiotic food, who demands a healthy diet followed by his daily orgasm. The script allows Bannen some hilariously funny lines; each of his sexual propositions being brilliantly dismissed by Taylor’s dead pan, psychotic expressions. And not forgetting the lusty car mechanic Carlo (Guido Mannari) He attempts to rape her in the back seat of his car. She locks him out and drives away. He’s definitely not Lise’s type.
Muriel Spark described her novella as a whydunnit. And a question mark pun also hovers over Griffi’s film as the police intervene and their detection role is turned upside down. This subplot is expanded from the novel’s to include acts of terrorism exploding in the background: the unexplained man grabbing a woman at the airport only to be shot dead and the prominent Arab sheikh who’s blown up in an attack on his car. I delighted in one blackly comic moment when Lisa asks a military officer if he carries a revolver. He says no. To which she disarmingly replies, ‘If you did you could shoot me.’ It’s as if she’s saying forget the political mayhem on the streets for it’s the demanded destruction of the individual that matters more.
The Driver’s Seat is a visually elegant film. Vittorio Storaro’s photography constantly creates beautiful imagery of people composed against modern architecture until near the end it gradually adopts the style of giallo cinema. Script, acting and astute direction continually confound the logic of the police’s role for even when they finally discover Lise’s killer they’ve only physically apprehended a part-killer, for we the audience and the young man, persuaded by Lise to commit a murder, are the only people with an existential knowledge of the real culprit and the real reasons.
Elizabeth Taylor dominates the story. It’s inspired casting. She’s intense and totally credible playing an alarmingly disturbed character who achieves her ‘deserved’ if crazy end. The strength of Taylor’s magnetic performance is supported by the excellent acting of her co-stars. The only weakness of The Driver’s Seat is to go for all out mystery without putting Lise and her young man’s story into at least the semblance of a contextual past. Not literal explanations: more, as with Muriel Spark, noting a scrap or two of their previous behaviour: for then the film’s absurdist tragedy would have, for me, been even deeper.
On its release in 1974 the film did badly commercially and critically. Today it will probably fascinate, engage, repel, disturb, disarm and draw you into its own world. Although we can never accept Lise’s bizarre death wish it’s what she wanted to realise. She completes a journey that we wish she hadn’t undertaken. The Driver’s Seat shakes you up morally. A film to greatly admire adapted from a successful, if risky, feminist book that you ought to read and admire too. Pause, have a drink after the credits have rolled up: leave a few days gap and then sit down in Spark’s equally cinematic and deliberately uncomfortable seat.