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Now this is a weird one. 1974’s Identikit, also known as The Driver’s Seat, and even occasionally as Psychotic, stars Elizabeth Taylor as what looks like a screen representation of her public persona – a batshit, flamboyant grande dame who we first meet in a German department store, where she is buying something garish and roundly insulting the sales assistant while doing so.

Lise, it turns out, is a wanted woman. An identikit picture of her has been posted at all airports. The police are on her tail, for what we don’t know. And as she flies from Hamburg to Rome, they follow behind, questioning everyone Lise comes into contact with. Lise, for her part, does not behave like a wanted woman. She is dressed like a deckchair, has big backcombed hair and is not afraid of shouting imperiously when she wants something. In a room full of Italians, while sitting on her own, she barks in English, “What is the time!” at no one in particular. No one answers so she shouts it again, louder. There is no “thank you” when someone responds.

What Lise is doing in Rome is never really explained either, but she seems to be looking for a man who is “my type” while at the same time protesting to any male close enough to feel her body heat that she is not after sex, has no time or need for it. In her hotel room, on her own, her hands wander over her breasts, suggesting this might not be entirely true.

Most of the men she encounters want sex with her though. All except one (Maxence Mailfort) she meets on the plane, who takes a long look into her hungry eyes, sees something that scares him, and changes seat. Unlike the man sitting on her other side, played by Ian Bannen, who is all over her, devouring her with his eyes, invading her body space, telling her unbidden that “I have to have an orgasm daily on my macrobiotic diet.” To this she replies: “I am an idealist.”

This non sequitur about sums up the movie, which is an absurdist hike through territory faintly familiar from Waiting for Godot. Director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi muddies rational waters even further by juggling the timeline. After every encounter Lise has with A.N. Other, Griffi cuts to a later interrogation by the police. Everyone Lise meets seem to tell a slightly different story about her.

Elizabeth Taylor and Ian Bannen
Bill needs his macrobiotic orgasm

It is all very strange. You might get an idea of how strange if I say that Andy Warhol turns up briefly as an English lord. Is Lise a hitwoman? A spy? An international thief? She’s a very conspicuous one if she is.

Muriel Spark wrote the original story, calling it a “whydunnit” – an examination of causation rather than an elaboration of events. This all sounds very plausible but having watched the film it isn’t adequate as a compelling reason as to why anyone should watch.

So, nul points for gripping drama, but look at Taylor’s magnificent performance. Richard Burton always said she was a better actor than him and you can see what he meant here. In a full-tilt turn, Taylor goes all-in as a woman driven restlessly onwards, ever onwards, barely capable of pausing to engage with any person she comes into contact with.

An existential thriller with no time for humour – though Taylor saying to Warhol “You’re not my type after all,” might raise a snigger – it can be bracketed with Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) as one of a run of abstract dramas coming out of Italy in the 1970s.

It is shot by Vittorio Storaro and edited by Franco Arcalli – both worked also on The Conformist and The Passenger – and together they also work their magic here, turning out a film that is gorgeous to look at. Every scene exquisitely framed, with lighting so remarkable that it’s worth watching for that reason alone. You could argue that Storaro’s lighting is too good, too extravagant for such flimsy foundations.

But at least it’s something to follow. There is something of the lost classic about this movie, in a two-out-of-three-ain’t-bad kind of way. And it explodes the notion that Elizabeth Taylor, last of the Hollywood goddesses, didn’t make arthouse films like this.

Identikit aka The Driver’s Seat – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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