Secret Ceremony (1968) ****Ĺ
Seventeen minutes into Secret Ceremony, all you can confidently say about anything thatís going on is that itís 11:00 in the morning, and at least one of the two characters introduced thus far is completely fucking insane. You canít even be sure which one is the loony! More pieces of the puzzle are presented at smartly spaced intervals thereafter, but it isnít until somewhere around the halfway mark that the contours into which those pieces fit become more than very faintly visible. It takes a lot of nerve to keep an audience in the dark like that for so long, and even more skill to hang onto the viewersí interest while doing itó to keep them engaged for nearly an hour without so much as letting on for sure what kind of story youíre telling. Joseph Losey would almost inevitably have nerve to spare, though, after emerging more or less unscathed in Britain from his mid-50ís Hollywood blacklisting, and heíd demonstrated the magnitude of his skill with the dark side of moviemaking seven years before Secret Ceremony, when he piloted These Are the Damned to a triumph too disturbing for two paying publics. This film is even more extraordinary than the earlier one, for it is equally discomfiting in its way, but does not suffer from the handicap of a wince-inducing failed stab at youth-culture alarmism.
In the hours before the clock strikes eleven, a tackily glamorous 30-something woman who turns out to be named Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor, whose other very rare descents into our usual territory include Night Watch and Doctor Faustus) wearily and dispiritedly gets herself ready to go out while a virtually unseen man leaves her apartment in the background. Leonoraís destination is the grave of ten-year-old drowning victim Judith Frances Grabowski, but that isnít immediately apparent. On the bus ride across London to the churchyard, Leonora is accosted by an adolescent girl (Mia Farrow, of Rosemaryís Baby and See No Evil) who pleadingly addresses her as ďMummy,Ē but otherwise remains completely silent. Leonora ignores her, and gets out of the bus at the next stop. The strange, reticent teen follows her, not merely off the bus, but all the way to the cemetery. Then, after Leonora has finished communing with the dead girl, the live one takes her hand and leads her to a vast, museum-like mansion surrounded by a walled garden that might as well be a park. Through it all, the only indication that Leonora recognizes the girl is a quick flash back to one of the photos on display in her apartment, which depicts a child who could have grown into this peculiar teenager, but might also be somebody else altogether. The house, meanwhile, seems to stir no recognition at all, despite the presence of numerous photographs depicting a woman who similarly might be a younger version of Leonora. The pair eventually do begin speaking to each other once inside, but thatís no help to us at all in figuring out whatís afoot here. They seem to be having two conflicting versions of the same conversation, with each addressing the other as someone whom she does not believe herself to be. By the time Leonora finishes the breakfast the girl makes her (and for whatever this is worth, Leonora surely doesnít eat like someone accustomed to the behavioral norms that accompany a house like this one), weíve reached the state Iíve already described. Thereís no room for doubting that one or the other of these people is barking mad, but thereís also no telling which. Maybe they both are. In any case, the pair nevertheless fall into a twisted semblance of a mother-daughter relationship before the dayís end, by which point we finally have a name to attach to the girl: Cenci.
Things get even weirder the next day. Shortly before noon, the doorbell rings; Cenci expects thatíll be Aunt Hilda (Pamela Brown, from The Night Digger and Dan Curtisís Dracula) and Aunt Hannah (The Wandering Jewís Peggy Ashcroft). Sheís right, as it happens, and Leonora hides herself at once. The two old ladies areÖ how shall I put this? ďEccentrically awfulĒ seems just about right. They bully their way around the house pestering Cenci for gifts, surreptitiously slipping small but obviously valuable objects into their purses, and heaping the girl with reproaches that we still donít have enough information to understand fully. And frankly, we have no more reason at this point to believe the women to be truly Cenciís aunts than we have to believe that Leonora is truly her mother. Two things stand out against the background of Hannah and Hildaís incessant and barely coherent prattling. First, they make direct reference to Cenciís motherís grave, demanding to know why there arenít any flowers on it. And more importantly, they gloatingly tell Cenci that somebody named Albert was arrested in Philadelphia. This is the second time weíve heard that name, the first coming in the midst of yesterdayís disorientingly contrapuntal conversation, in which it seemed alternately that Albert was Cenciís lover and her motherís. Clearly the Awful Aunties are either lying or misinformed about that Philadelphia business, though, because Albert himself (Robert Mitchum, from Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear) comes calling later that day, after they have gone home, after Cenci has gone out on an errand, and after Leonora has come out of hiding to mull over what she saw and heard while eavesdropping on Hannah and Hildaís visit. When Leonora doesnít answer his knock, Albert slips a rose with his card attached to it into the mail slot, and stands out in the garden shouting for somebody named Margaret. Eventually, he gives up and goes away.
A day or so later, Leonora starts playing detective. Donít ask me how, but she traces the Awful Aunties to the antique shop they run togetheró which I suspect is stocked to a non-trivial extent with items looted from Cenciís house. This, at last, is where some real answers begin coming to light. Revelation the First: Leonora is definitely not Cenciís mother; that would be the mysterious Margaret. She does, however, look an awful lot like Margaret at first glance, and she exploits that resemblance in her dealings with the Awful Aunties by posing as Margaretís semi-estranged American cousin. Revelation the Second: Hannah and Hilda really are Cenciís aunts, the younger sisters of her father, Gustav Engelhardt. Revelation the Third: Gustav and Margaret are both deadó Gustav since Cenci was only nine years old, and Margaret relatively recently, of a long, wasting illnessó leaving Cenci sole heir to her fatherís mammoth fortune. That would explain both the mansion and the Awful Auntiesí conviction that theyíre entitled to steal anything they fancy from it. Revelation the Fourth: Albert was Margaretís second husband, whom she justly banished from the house when she caught him sexually molesting Cenci. And Revelation the Fifth: Cenci, despite her childlike appearance, is really (like the actress portraying her) well into her twenties, but such is the nature of the madness that came over her in the wake of Margaretís death that she has been regressing steadily in mental age toward a point more consistent with her inability to face life without her mother. Leonora becomes rightly incensed at the blithe manner in which the Awful Aunties take advantage of Cenciís incompetenceó to say nothing of their failure to lift a finger in protection of her against the abuse they plainly knew was going onó and she takes her leave of the antique shop with what amounts to a declaration of war. The next time Hilda and Hannah show their faces around the Engelhardt mansion, theyíll be departing in the back of a police car.
As for Leonora, her story, once it finally comes out, is only a little less tragic than Cenciís. The deceased Grabowski girl was her daughter, killed in an accident for which she thoroughly blames herself. The details never emerge, but they donít matter too much, really. Suffice it to say that Leonoraís attention wandered at exactly the wrong moment, and that was it for little Judith. It also isnít clear whether Leonora was a prostitute to start with, or whether she took up that occupation only after her daughterís death destroyed her marriage to the girlís father. What is obvious is the way her loss compliments Cenciís, together with the temptation that creates for her to cooperate with and indeed encourage Cenciís insanity. Cenci would have a mother again; Leonora would have a daughter again; and as a humongous bonus, Leonora would also have the Engelhardt millions to play around withó which of course sheíd do without any of the Awful Auntiesí avarice, right? Leonora hasnít figured on Albert, however, or indeed on Cenciís own understanding of her relationship with her stepfather, which is as twisted as everything else in her mad, death-haunted world.
I canít believe Iím saying this about a Universal Studios picture from the late 1960ís starring Elizabeth Taylor (for that matter, I can barely believe Iím reviewing an Elizabeth Taylor movie in the first place), but Secret Ceremony is easily the weirdest thing Iíve seen in ages. It is toweringly strange, monumentally strange; its strangeness first becomes visible as if looming up over the horizon during the uncomfortably abrupt and ineffably archaic main titles, and commands more and more attention with each passing minute. The film defies genre categorization, partaking of psychological horror, family melodrama, and even gothic romance in a cockeyed sort of way, without ever settling on any of them or indeed even acknowledging the expectation that it should do so. It goes out of its way to be confusing at a point in the narrative conventionally devoted to bringing the audience up to speed on the charactersí identities, relationships, and situations, then spends the entire second act making up for lost expository time. It builds its story around a lunatic who turns out to be both mostly harmless and extremely vulnerable to all manner of exploitation, and puts her in a position where her unrepentant sex-predator of a stepfather is probably the best available influence upon her! And most of all, it approaches the subject of mental illness from a direction that I donít believe Iíve ever seen used before.
Of the characters with whom we spend enough time to form a solid sense of their personalities, the Awful Aunties come nearest to psychological normality. Hannah and Hilda arenít crazyó theyíre just totally without scruples of any kind. Albert, strangely enough, does have principles, but theyíre distorted and diseased, driving him to self-deception (and toward efforts to deceive everyone else to match) rather than integrity. Unlike the aunts, who waste neither time nor energy defending or apologizing for their treatment of Cenci, Albert has spent years erecting a complicated edifice of bullshit justification for his noxious behavior. Clearly it matters a great deal to him that he be understood (both by himself and by others) not only to be doing no harm to any of the young women whom he takes advantage of in his capacity as lecherous college professor, but also to be doing good for his stepdaughter as the only person to recognize who she really is or what she really needs. The truly horrifying thing is that heís kind of right about that last part. Leaving aside for now the grotesque way in which he acts on his understanding, Albert really is the only one in Cenciís life (Cenci herself included) who gets that she is a grown woman, and that those who would encourage and abet her retreat back into childhood do her no favors, whatever their intentions toward her. Leonora may wish Cenci only the best, but in playing to her psychotic wish for a replacement mother, she does her every bit as much damage as Albert or the Awful Aunties. And of course Leonoraís dealings with Cenci call her own sanity into question as well. She may not be mad yet, but she undoubtedly is flirting with madness by folding herself into Cenciís. Secret Ceremony thus has no secure anchor in ďreality,Ē no perspective on its story that isnít in some sense delusional. As a consequence, it remains extremely disorienting even after Losey backs away from the deliberate obfuscation of the opening act.
The performances of the major players contribute much to that disorientation, too, albeit in two markedly different ways. To begin with the most readily classifiable, Mia Farrow is inarguably brilliant as Cenci. Although in the abstract, it strains credulity to imagine a woman in her early twenties being mistaken by everyone who sees her for a girl in her early teens, in practice, itís really much more difficult to believe that Secret Ceremony was made later the same year as Rosemaryís Baby. Farrow presents every indication of being little more than a child here, and knowing that she isnít turns every one of Cenciís scenes into an even bigger mind-fuck than they would have been anyway. The remaining key performances, on the other handó those of Robert Mitchum, Pamela Brown, Peggy Ashcroft, and especially Elizabeth Tayloró are so puzzling that itís nearly impossible to judge whether theyíre almost as great as Farrowís, or stunningly, perfectly terrible. I was not at all surprised to learn that John Waters counted Secret Ceremony among his favorite films, for it would be the easiest thing in the world to dismiss it as the very pinnacle of camp. Look at it closely, though, and youíll be hard-put to find the slightest trace of irony, self-parody, or even self-awareness anywhere. Itís a densely absurd movie, and nowhere is that plainer than in the avalanche of ham unleashed by all of its ďadultĒ stars, yet itís also a film that commits utterly to all of its absurdities. In such a context, anything more subtle than these colossal histrionics would have been an equally colossal mistake. Taylor, Mitchum, Brown, and Ashcroft need to be histrionic, because Leonora, Albert, Hilda, and Hannah are histrionic themselves. It doesnít really matter, then, from which direction they come by their just-right wrongness; either way, they all bring the crazy by the bucket-full, with seriously unsettling results.
As you might have heard, Elizabeth Taylor died earlier this year. For some unfathomable reason, we B-Masters decided it was imperative that we dedicate our next roundtable to the memory of that most un-B of mid-century Hollywood stars, and this review is my contribution to that project. Click the banner below to see how my collegues have eulogized her.