Fantasia 2022: IDENTIKIT Shows Liz on a Journey of International Surrealism

“I want to go back home to feel all my loneliness again.”

I can’t remember the first time I had ever heard of Identikit since it’s not the kind of movie you ever really hear about as much as it’s the kind you’re aware of. Much in the way the film’s heroine’s mind works, it’s almost like a very special cinephile will have a sort of premonition that a film like this will come their way even if they didn’t fully know it. For me, that premonition came true nearly a decade ago when the film was shown as part of Alamo Drafthouse’s Weird Wednesday series here in Austin. Even the usual Weird Wednesday audience (accustomed to all kinds of cinematic curios) didn’t know what to make of it. As for my reaction, well, I was too gobsmacked by what I had just seen to form an opinion.

As much as I couldn’t forget Identikit (also known in some markets as The Driver’s Seat), I never sought it out for a re-watch. The reasons for this are unknown and not particularly important, but thanks to the stunning 4K restoration from Severin Films screening at Fantasia Fest 2022, Identikit has been given the biggest platform its ever had where it will surely imprint itself onto a new audience.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor in the strangest role of her career, Identikit follows Lise (Taylor), a slightly disturbed single woman who journeys from London to Italy searching for a man she has never met, but with whom she is sure she’s got a fated rendezvous with. Along the way, she encounters several individuals, each of whom gives bits of information to help solve Lise’s fate.

It’s incredibly hard to describe the kind of film Identikit is. With an unconventional architecture (at least for its day), a protagonist who could very well be called an unreliable narrator, and a collection of side characters, all of whom seem to live on another planet, the film defies any one category. It’s a horror film, an international thriller, a character study, and a tragic drama all at the same time. The movie has us follow Lise’s journey as she embarks on her travels and then intercuts the narrative with scenes of those she’s encountered being questioned by investigators about their experiences with her, allowing us to piece together what kind of outcome has befallen this already tragic woman.

Meanwhile, nearly every setup and shot here is a work of art with director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro taking full advantage of the locations and the uniqueness of the kind of story being told. An extended opening shot featuring a collection of naked mannequins and the dreamy nighttime climax are both breathtaking highlights. Other factors, such as the haunting piano score and a wonderfully puzzling cameo by Andy Warhol as a British Lord only add to the film’s dizzying nature. All of these elements work to tell this one-of-a-kind portrait of female madness where the woman in question seems to be possessed by it to the point where she feels more alive than she maybe ever did before.

Identikit provides lovers of 70s European cinema with plenty when it comes to the visuals and unpredictable plot, but it’s the script’s outrageous dialogue that proves the most surprising element. As if the plot of a disturbed woman wandering around Europe looking for someone she doesn’t know weren’t enough to make certain audience members of obscure cinema chomp at the bit, Lise’s story sometimes pales in comparison to the words the movie has her and those around her say. “I have to have one orgasm a day on my macrobiotic diet,” a lecherous British tourist tells Lise at one point. “When I diet, I diet. When I orgasm, I orgasm,” she replies. “I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures.”

What’s so electric about the dialogue is how it comes straight out of nowhere and yet works to enliven the scene rather than distract from it. “Which do you think would be the most masochistic,” the main character asks when trying to decide on what paperback to read on the plane. Other times, the script surprises by being unexpectedly poetic, revealing the film to be a melancholic character piece. One telling example of this comes when Lise tries to describe what kind of force took her on the journey in the first place, describing it as “not really a presence, but rather the lack of absence.”

In an era that already saw the actress tackle some off-the-wall projects, (does anyone remember the eyebrow-raising X, Y, and Zee?), Identikit stands out as Taylor’s riskiest and most otherworldly venture in front of the camera. The script’s narrative has enough to keep people intrigued/weirded out, but it’s Taylor’s performance that keeps them glued. It’s fascinating to watch as the actress dives deep into Lise’s deranged state of mind with such abandon.

Taylor once pointed out that she’d never had an acting lesson, but had gained all her acting instincts by observing esteemed costars like Spencer Tracy and Montgomery Clift. Yet her work in Identikit feels practically method. Not only does she embrace Lise’s unpredictable antics, but she also hones in on the sad longing within her and the belief that she is indeed being carried towards a fate she has seen. It’s one of the boldest and bravest performances of the actress’s legendary career.

Watching Identikit in its beautifully restored glory, it was hard not to be struck by the oddness, absurd humor, and slanted reality in which it took place. It’s not that the film contains anything particularly shocking, disturbing, or salacious, at least not by today’s standards. It doesn’t need to. The movie’s portrait of a woman who is being pulled to a destiny she is simultaneously succumbing to and orchestrating in a reality that itself feels slightly off is the kind of mesmerizing experience international cinema does so well. Ultimately, what has caused it to live on in my head is the fact that Identikit is a piece of film that lives on a distinct plane of existence that few other works could ever hope (or even think) to capture.

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