April 11, 2019
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
lizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow play mother and daughter in Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1968). Well, kind of. Taylor portrays a luscious aging sex worker named Leonora who is grappling with the loss of her 10-year-old daughter, who tragically drowned recently. Farrow, pawning off her trademark straw-blond bob for a mousy black wig, is Cenci, an infantile 22-year-old rich girl. The women meet on a bus, where Cenci,
offering no explanation, sits next to Leonora and death-stares at her in silence. Cenci then follows closely behind Leonora as she visits a rustic church, where a baptism is going on, then to a cemetery, where the latter sheds a tear or two on top of her daughter’s grave.
It’s at the latter location that it becomes clear why there’s a creepy pull between the women. Cenci seems to believe that Leonora is her mother, who recently died from an undisclosed illness. Leonora, in turn, is a bit suspicious, given their matching rattish gaze, that Cenci might be her daughter reincarnated.
Within Secret Ceremony’s first half an hour, Leonora has moved into Cenci’s sprawling, Gothic-lite streetside mansion, which is so ornate that it has mosaic-glass bathroom doors. Leonora first seems to look at this as a great, grifter-like opportunity — why remain in the sex-work industry when you can live lavishly, with the only caveat being that you have to take care of a woman-girl apparently living alone? — but then seems to actually be concerned for Cenci, who has clearly been traumatized by something or someone. Nevermind explications revolving around why Cenci’s family is so wealthy, why the genealogical dysfunction is so overwhelming, or why Leonora thinks it really is best to give her entire life up for one with this mysterious eccentric.
So much of what happens early in Secret Ceremony happens for the most part wordlessly. The first 10 minutes of the film are aggravatingly quiet, with character backgrounds being fleshed out not through dialogue but through clever imagery and pithy verbal cues: a photo of a young girl Leonora stares at with a sad expression in her eyes, then, later, a look at that daughter’s grave; Cenci’s gawking at Leonora on the bus and then saying “mama,” which is later expounded on when we enter her mansion and see that Leonora does indeed look quite a bit like this stranger’s mother. Losey, evidently, wants to lean harder into the ambient and the auratic. He wants to make us feel like we’re in the throes of a more-saturnine-than-sobered neo-Gothic melodrama made in the style of, say, Shirley Jackson or Henry James, rather than reimagine one of the latter-mentioned authors’ works for himself.
Secret Ceremony’s narrative is often disturbed by Cenci’s no-good family members. First we meet her Peggy Ashcroft-and Pamela Brown-portrayed aunts, who often show up unannounced at the mansion and steal decorative knick-knacks for their shared antique shop down the way. Then comes Cenci's reprobate of a stepfather, Albert (Robert Mitchum, barely trying to maintain a British accent), who does little to conceal his sexual attraction to her. These characters, ever-odd, only enhance Losey’s quasi-hallucinogenic vision; this storyline’s already bizarre as hell, so to additionally put a spotlight on pitch-perfectly erratic and near-nonsensically written side characters only ups the kooky ante.
Secret Ceremony, which follows Losey's Accident, from 1967, has become rather infamous: either looked at as among the worst or most underrated pieces in both Losey’s and Taylor’s respective oeuvres; campy to a damning if an enjoyable degree or dubbed a provocative, surprisingly psychologically rich character study. I consider it none of the above-mentioned things. The movie’s not over-the-top enough to altogether work as a fun slab of schlock, and screenwriter George Tabori’s writing is not so emotionally flagrant and perceptive to make the characterization of subversively smart portraiture feel quite right. It’s ultimately superficial.
Secret Ceremony, to my eyes, is soap opera slamming into the grotesque as if it were a Mustang going 100 colliding with a cement wall. It’s resolutely overwrought and sartorially glittered in the same way something like Dynasty (1981-1989) might be. But it’s also so dramatically titled and stylistically sleepy that you come to feel almost like you’re floating through it, not sure exactly how you’re supposed to react to what you’re taking in.
Offness is what I like best about Secret Ceremony. It’s bowed in every sense of the word, yet it also feels precisely so — like Losey and his co-conspirators were aiming to create a soaper that at once pulls you in and shuts you out but still manages to leave you fairly dizzy and knock-kneed. The grapevine says Losey’s original cut, alleged to imbue Taylor and Farrow’s on-screen relationship with the sapphic, looks nothing like what was put out in theaters. But the finished product is so expertly strange and absorbing that I can’t and don’t want to picture it any other way. B+