“Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”.
Sound advice, if you happen to be Julie Andrews. However, viewing Joseph Losey’s work in a linear context, and therefore, judging him as you would any other director, is a tricky business- never more so than when dealing with SECRET CEREMONY, a film which, forty-something years on, invites as much debate as when first released. Is it a work of genius? A by-product of the era perhaps, where precious little seemed to make sense? The ramblings of a lunatic? Or maybe all three? And above all, what exactly is it about? I have to confess to moderate confusion myself, although I can’t deny I find it captivating, and have to watch it at least once a year- or else.
On the surface, it’s about a prostitute (Elizabeth Taylor) having a nervous breakdown, and attempting to come to terms with the death of her own (unseen) daughter. Or maybe, it’s about Cenci (Mia Farrow) a troubled ‘teenager’, who may in fact be considerably older (shades of The Killing Of Sister George abound, methinks) suffering delusions after the death (self inflicted?) of her mother, and recovering from years of domestic sexual abuse at the hands of a sleazy stepfather (Robert Mitchum), thus transferring the need for love and affection onto someone who bears a passing resemblance to her departed parent- in this case Taylor, who she seemingly meets one day on a bus.
At least I think so. But that only scratches the surface. There’s so much going on underneath at any given time, so many hints, nuances, subtleties and allegories, that everything I’ve written so far already seems oversimplified. And you thought Cassavetes and Lynch were multi-layered? Trust me, they don’t even come close to Losey’s bizarre yet ravishingly beautiful vision. For one thing, there isn’t a single character you can possibly identify with.
You want to like Leonora (Taylor) as she seems haunted and therefore sympathetic, but a detectable undercurrent of superficiality, bitchiness and cold calculating contrivance prevents it. You want to feel sympathy for Farrow, and she does look rather lovely in that black wig, but it’s hard for your heart to go out with someone who, traumatic past or not, is clearly a millionairess living in potentially opulent luxury. Then again, you wouldn’t necessarily favour the scheming ‘aunts’ (for which some may choose to read ‘lesbian couple’) on her late father’s side, as played by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown, who drop by periodically under the auspices of seeing how their mentally ill relative is getting on, but are only really interested in plundering expensive clothes from her wardrobe. Nor would you have the time of day for Mitchum, giving the most unusual performance of his career as a paedophile/nymphetishist who confesses that he “saw his stepdaughter for the first time aged 11, and thought ‘that’s for me’ ”.
All references to men (with the exception of the deceased Jewish father, idolised by his ‘sisters’) are pretty disdainful throughout, particularly any Taylor talks of having met through her precarious profession: it would therefore be easy to mistakenly read SECRET CEREMONY as a feminist film, were it not for the fact that the female characters are also intrinsically flawed. On the other hand, this is why they’re so beautiful, a beauty assisted in no small measure by the director. Rather than choose the prosaic, stark and bleak approach preferred by Loach or Clayton, which the expatriate American himself had largely favoured until ACCIDENT (or indeed Bergman, whose own PERSONA is a visible influence here) to provide sometimes frank and disturbing insights into the human condition, Losey favours the use of exotic furnishings, grandiose balconies and stylish apparel, while the recent swing towards colour photography as the preferred medium allows him a full range of vibrant purples, reds and pastels previously untapped.
Farrow and Taylor both benefit from this development, the former milky and waiflike, the latter ruddy and robust, whilst the faded splendour of Cenci’s rapidly decaying mansion, almost like a real-life Grey Gardens (something reinforced by the relationship between the two), is shown in vivid yet enticing detail, as perversely attractive as the tacky seaside villa they go on holiday to, where (either by coincidence or contrivance) Mitchum appears again. Some have accused him of being badly miscast in his role- and indeed, as the self-professed ‘Limey poof’ Albert, he does sport the most ridiculous and transparently transatlantic approximation of an English accent outside of Dick Van Dyke in MARY POPPINS, as well as a quite ludicrous beard (which he subsequently asks Farrow to remove in what is obviously a fetishistic ‘secret ceremony’ between them alone). Yet his presence is essential to the film’s dynamic, thriving as it does on the classic ‘interruption’ of the routine of its principal characters’ lives by a third party, a theme explored often in both genre (Prey, Vampyres, The Corruption Of Chris Miller, The Shout) and non-genre works ( Cul De Sac, The Killing Of Sister George again).
This raises, of course, the most important point here- is SECRET CEREMONY a horror film? Well, to some it may be. At points it definitely feels like one- sharing both atmosphere and aesthetics with the likes of PEEPING TOM, TWISTED NERVE, SEASON OF THE WITCH, FRAGMENT OF FEAR, THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, REPULSION, SYMPTOMS and IMAGES (the last four also belonging in the subgenre of ‘female nervous breakdown’ pictures, and the last three of which are the work of foreign directors in the British Isles) displaying some distinctly Bava-esque camerawork and design, and dealing with topics of insanity, psychosis, delusion, delirium and murder, all common to the genre. Did those involved ever feel or think at any time they were making a horror film? Difficult to say, although by 1968 the freedom afforded filmmakers by British producers, coupled with the experimental, pioneer spirit of the age, was such that genres were cross-pollinating and conjoining with alarming frequency, with an implicit understanding that any drama (and even some comedies) could plunge headlong into dark waters at a moment’s notice.
Thus, ‘horror’ could be the order of the day as easily as any other, although decidedly of the urban, psychological variety rather than the supernatural. On a basic level, what we have here is a psychological thriller: however, if that term could also be used to describe the likes of PEEPING TOM, THE NANNY, and practically every giallo ever committed to celluloid, then by the same token this film also fits the description. And whereas self-appointed arbiters of ‘serious’ cinema have given the film a wide berth, British Horror (and for want of a better term, ‘cult movie’) fans seem to have taken it to their hearts and given it the respect it deserves.
You can see how detractors (including seemingly every critic who reviewed it upon release, whose knives were obviously out after Losey and Taylor’s previous collaboration on the misunderstood Tennessee Williams adaptation BOOM) might make a point of its detached quaintness, pointing out that people in real life just don’t talk or act the way the actors do here, and that even if they did, why should we be bothered about the mental anguish of some dotty heiress and her sluttish companion anyway? However, these are probably the same people who told audiences to avoid THE WICKER MAN and go and see HERBIE GOES BANANAS instead, so maybe we should think twice before gifting their opinions with too much credence.
If anything, SECRET CEREMONY has a timelessness some of its contemporaries don’t possess, and even if it is a product, by its very nature of the psychedelic age, it doesn’t wear the Sixties on its sleeve (not that there’s anything wrong with films that do). In fact, the one time a character is seen wearing a flower-power dress, it’s shortly before they commit a sudden act of violence, and ‘peace and love’ seem to be the very last things on their mind.
Then again, ambiguity and ambivalence seem to be the order of the day. The film’s title could allude to a number of things- the knowingly pretend relationship acted out by Leonora and Cenci, Cenci’s quasi-masturbatory fantasy of violation acted out on the kitchen table (whilst Leonora covertly watches from the shadows), the “roleplay” between Mitchum and Farrow which toys with the concepts of consent and rape to the point where they become worryingly intertwined, the ambiguity of Ashctoft and Brown’s ‘sisterhood’- but, on a more subconscious level, could it not also describe the unacknowledged yet very real practice of pretence we adopt when entering any unhealthy liaison? We all wear a number of masks, wigs and hats at different times, but the blindfold we wear to shield ourselves from reality is the most potentially dangerous.
The women’s relationship is conducted under this shield, and is ultimately unhealthy (one scene in particular involving a ‘massage’ which has clear Sapphic overtones), leading to tragic and inevitable consequences for one, and uncertainty for the other, as well as the murder described earlier. The true ‘horror’, though, is to be found in Losey’s depiction of suicide, here portrayed as a squishy, swirly, quasi-hallucinogenic act that leaves an unpleasant jabbing sensation in the viewer’s innards. Yet despite all the unpleasantness, the after-effect is actually one of serenity. Maybe it’s because the two principal actresses deliver such serene performances.
Although Taylor was well into her ‘mad bint’ cycle by now (taking in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, the aforementioned BOOM, IDENTIKIT and eventually full-on horror with NIGHT WATCH) here she is subtle, understated, and above all perfect for the part. Likewise Farrow seems natural in her role, avoiding the occasional lapses into histrionic over-acting that would mar an otherwise great performance in the later BLIND TERROR, and displaying the same mixture of vulnerability and near-evil she would put to great use the same year in ROSEMARY’S BABY (and much later in THE HAUNTING OF JULIA). “Beware of young girls who come to the door, wistful and pale, and twenty-and-four”, sang the cuckolded Dory Previn after Farrow had slyly nicked her husband, and if that ever applied anywhere onscreen as well as in real life, then it is surely here.
A merciless schemer, or a mercurial talent possessed by terrible demons? Maybe a touch of Cenci still dwells in her to this day. Four decades on, we are still none the wiser, any more than we are about the film itself- and that, perhaps, is its greatest strength.