Elizabeth Taylor arrived on the set of director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s Identikit (1974) the day after her first divorce from Richard Burton was finalized. Taylor’s portrayal of Lise is an exhilarating, unhinged, and totally unguarded expression of the actress’ experience with Burton. Elizabeth Taylor’s career is full of larger than life characters and lunatic performances but never have the two been as simpatico as in Identikit.
Based on a novel by Muriel Spark, Griffi’s Identikit tells the story of a woman in search of her own identity both internally and externally. What begins as an internal crisis is externalized physically in Lise’s journey to Italy and emotionally as she seeks out a man who is her “type” to validate the power of her identity by ending it. The plot, like Lise herself, is revealed in fragmentary pieces as the narrative of Identikit unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Lise’s identity crisis is further reflected in the political turmoil around her as domestic terrorism tears Italy apart.
For all of the violence that occurs around Lise none of it can overshadow Elizabeth Taylor’s wholly committed and manic performance. Adorned in a unique psychedelic dress, Taylor captures the eye of the viewer as she frantically cuts through every one of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s compositions. Taylor’s Lise defies the spectator by trivializing all pain and strife in Identikit that isn’t her own.
There’s a palpable danger about Taylor’s performance that permeates each of her character’s interactions. When a bomb explodes and sends her reeling into the arms of a rapist the film itself feels as if it is about too combust right out of the screen. Even in Taylor’s more subtle interactions with a Lord (played by Taylor’s good friend Andy Warhol) there’s a feeling of imminent danger and dread. Identikit is a film about identity as told through the emotional experience of identity’s absence.
By the end of Identikit viewers know as much about Lise or any of the film’s characters as when the film began. While motives and temporal order are understood, the fundamental personality of Lise is entirely ambiguous. Lise cannot be seen as a character, but rather as a uniquely human experience personified. There’s a universal truth regarding the emotional experience of an identity in tailspin that Lise personifies externally of the audience and thus becomes a sort of proxy or reflection of the viewer.
More than any other actress of her generation Elizabeth Taylor accomplished this existential feat. Lise of Identikit follows in the footsteps of Leonora in Secret Ceremony (1969), Mrs. Penderton in Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967), and Catherine Holly in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) as another cultural touchstone of female identity in crisis within an oppressive patriarchal society. For Elizabeth Taylor’s performance alone Identikit is very nearly a kind of masterpiece.