Right for Each Other for All the Wrong Reasons

For years, I couldn’t find any entry on the internet about Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi’s 1973 film, The Driver’s Seat that did not describe the film as “psychotic.” People felt that they had it sufficiently summed up in that one word, which also was one of the alternate titles given to the film at its release abroad. Occasionally it was noted for putting Liz Taylor onscreen across from Andy Warhol; this should have been hint enough that this movie is a queer’s casting wet dream. With its release on dvd there has been a call to re-evaluate it (on Rottentomatoes.com), but not much effort has been made.

“Who asked you for a stain resistant dress?”
A neo-surrealist effort, the film is an adaptation of Muriel Spark’s brilliant novel. Though I haven’t read it in over ten years, that book is one of the most vivid reading experiences of my life and I find the film to be a faithful rendition with the exception of some tweaks to the narrative structure.

Plot-wise it’s a story about Lise (Elizabeth Taylor), a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who leaves some unnamed Northern European country on a vacation to the South (clearly Italy), where she intends to meet up with her boyfriend.

Lise unwinds in her hotel room.

One misadventure after another leads Lise to encounter men whom she deems are not her “type.” Eventually, she catches up to a fellow who had caught her attention on the flight over to Italy, takes him to the woods and instructs him as to the method of her execution (death by stabbing). Spark probably meant this to be an indictment of the way in which modern urban loneliness makes a woman’s sexuality frigid and thereby turns her most positive social impulses against herself.

“Where are you going dressed like that, the circus?!”

But that’s such a cold, analytic, way to summarize the movie. Spark was well known for her Humanistic, “Catholic,” all-encompassing sense of humor and her campy plots (she deserved the Nobel Prize far more than that hack, Doris Lessing). The film maintains much of that sensibility, telling the story through a series of police interviews that flashback to the characters’ horror at encountering Lise. Lise is played as a tacky affront to the senses, whose social awkwardness transcends mere bad taste and becomes a divine madness — an aesthetic of tightly wound up female sexuality and lack of self-consciousness.

“This may look like a purse. But it’s actually a bomb! You’re all so suspicious. Suspicious!”

There is a method to Lise’s madness, such as when she stuffs her passport into the seat of a cab mentioning “this will keep it safe.” Liz Taylor plays the scene with frenzy followed by relief as if by packing away the sign of her identity, Lise has thrown off a weighty burden.

“When I diet, I diet. And when I orgasm, I orgasm. I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures.”

Right for each other for all the wrong reasons, is a sentiment whose smug self-satisfaction is on par with such expressions as “TMI” (read: ‘Too Much Information’) and “It is what it is” (read: ‘Fuck You’). But here, Lise and her “boyfriend” are so wrong each for each other, there is something beautifully right about it.

Pierre senses this about their dynamic when he first sees her on the flight. Her predatory nature has her sniffing him up and down. His panic is such that he stands up and forces his way down the aisle to another seat just as the plane is taking off. He thinks that pathological love is something that he can escape, not yet understanding that all true love is naturally pathological. Lise is smitten by the rejection: “He must be crazy. I wonder who he is?” she asks. “He must be nutty” she muses with apparent hunger.

Lise spots a “filthy, stale glass… dirty” in her hotel bathroom.

Not enough can be said about Elizabeth Taylor’s insane performance in this movie. As ever her delivery was virtuoso, but by 1973 one could see the wear and tear of age on her face. The over-ripeness of her appearance and wardrobe (as Lise says of her dress, “These are pure, natural, colors”) only enhances her amazing acting talent. One of the best trained actresses of her generation, she had been eclipsed by the legend of that blond bimbo, Marilyn Monroe. But this was a role into which she could sink her teeth, presenting Lise’s instability with subtle changes of expression such as the gamut of emotions that wash across her face when, out of the corner of her eye, she discovers an unwashed glass in the hotel bathroom.

Lise dirties her dress in a terrorist attack.

Someone with great taste has kindly uploaded scenes from the film onto youtube in three parts. If you can’t get your hands on the dvd or vhs of the film, I’ve linked to the videos below. I would love to hear what established fans of the movie think of it, and see the impression of newcomers to it. I watch this thing at least once a year and am never disappointed with its madness, and have not once thought that I have a comprehensive sense of what is going on in it.

Let me know what you think.


6 Responses to “Right for Each Other for All the Wrong Reasons”

  1. Mi Kyung Says:

    i read this a long time ago, so i can’t recall much. what i do have is a vague memory of her minimalist, space-agey living box (think original star trek). which, in itself, struck me as crazy. and the fact that my gut reaction to the book was: i hate lise. she’s INSANE. now, 10 yrs and many “enriching experiences” later, maybe i’d have a different reaction to the story.elizabeth taylor is still beautiful here. even in her weariness and gaudiness. what the hell happened to popular standards of female beauty in this country? bolt a pair of bulbous tits on an otherwise bony frame, bleach hair, maybe throw on some skanky clothes, and voila! you’ve got a beauty. or sex symbol at the least. eh, sorry about the tangent…

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    The minimalist modernism (“no keys on the table!”) style is indicative of her anomie — aimlessness in the city. I love seeing people who show off that style of furniture because I immediately sense how fucked up they are. I remember lending you the book, and at the time I was on board with the Lise hate. How sad is it that we totally identify with her now. I mean, it’s totally useless for me to live in denial about it. The evidence of my Lise-ness is all over my love life.

  3. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    Lise’s apartment is a damning example of Euro-efficient living–quite cutting edge (or so some thought) at the time the film was made. We can thank Scandinavia for this–it lives on in Ikea. Cheap and efficient, but absolutely lacking in aesthetic sensibility. Grad students live with this sort of furniture because they can’t afford better–and this only contributes to the angst of their daily lives–but I’d be terribly suspicious of the mentality of anyone who could afford to have a choice of decor and chose this.As to the film/Spark’s novella, when we can recognize Lise as a metaphor for our own self-destructive tendencies, perhaps we’ve had a useful epiphany, even if it makes us no happier. Yes, Lise might well be the emblem of my own romantic history. (Oh my God, what women I’ve chosen to “kill” me!) There’s something completely shaming in realizing that not only did they crucify one, but one paid for the lumber to build the cross, the nails in one’s hands and feet, and the hammer to drive them in.BTW, a strange bit of synchronicity in that you sent me the link while I was at a conference–in SoCal–and was formulating a response to a call for papers on Muriel Spark. I’d already been trying to structure a proposal for something on Spark, cinema, and the 1960s. I might have to quote this blog in the finish product.Finally, I do feel responsible/guilty for all this. I introduced Sharif to The Driver’s Seat in a long ago seminar. If I ever needed any evidence of the long-term ramifications of one’s teaching. . . .

  4. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    Furthermore, I would rather live in an apartment with furniture upholstered with the material used to make Lise’s dresses than go the “minimalist [post]modern” route.I suspect that the fabric designs have something to do with the death throes of the exuberant Mod (as opposed to Modernist) subculture of the 1960s. The 1970s brought an international turn to the Right, and the sensibilities of pseudo-pleasure took over.

  5. emily Says:

    I might be the only one who loved Lise from the start. Her “cyclamen spots” gave her away. The prideful self-destruction in “Driver’s Seat” (1974) takes up perfectly where “Boom!” and “Secret Ceremony” (both 1968) left off. The millionairess in Boom, desperately groveling for her injections; a worn prostitute greedily gobbling up a full English breakfast at Mia’s mansion in a game of mistaken identity in Secret Ceremony, and the psychotic spree in “The Driver’s Seat…” I think watching all three films together is really gratifying — like a long-playing mirror that simulates morning, daytime, and evening settings (of a singular psychic death.) Did anyone else read “The Walter Syndrome,” the paperback that Andy Warhol gives her, to wear like an emblem?Re: her minimalist/space-agey decorThere have been a few other movies in that time period which link the main character’s undoing with design — Jean Simmons in “Happy Ending” (Connecticut Crockery); Julie Christie in “Petulia” (San Francisco Psychedelic Heights) and Susannah York in “Images” (Ghostly Vacation Cottage) to name three immediate favorites. Please help me add to this list?

  6. darknessatnoon Says:

    I have always wanted to read The Walter Syndrome, and have been meaning to comment more fully on what you have to say, but first I’d like to watch the movies you mention here. Have just read The Public Image, it feels like the ending of that novel is starts to point towards “Liseness.”

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