*. What the hell did I just see?
*. OK, so Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is a prostitute of a certain age and avoirdupois (Liz at the time was comfortably settling into these roles of voluptuous if not rank maturity). Leonora is American, but working in London, which is something that’s never explained. One day she goes to church to lay flowers on her daughter’s grave.
*. Then there’s this rich young woman with extreme mental problems (she thinks she’s a little girl, for one thing) named Cenci (Mia Farrow). Cenci sees Leonora riding the bus to her daughter’s grave, and since Leonora reminds Cenci of her dead mother she starts following her around and calling her “mum.” She even invites Leonora to come live with her in her fabulous mansion. Which is a hard offer to turn down.
*. That’s pretty weird, but it gets weirder still. The reason Cenci is behaving so strangely is because her step-father Albert (Robert Mitchum, because Richard Burton was busy filming Where Eagles Dare) sexually abused her when she was a kid. And guess what? Daddy’s back in town! Meanwhile, Cenci’s two spinster aunts (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown) are hovering about the mansion like aged ghouls, looking to claim first dibs on any of the good stuff so they can resell it in their shop. They are also buddies with Albert, despite it being pretty clear what a moral degenerate he is.
*. I don’t know what to make of all this. The plot is overwrought in the worst sort of lurid psychodrama manner. It’s also very heavy-handed, from Cenci’s name (Shelley wrote a play on the Cenci which was all about rape and parricide) to the size of the palace Cenci lives in (Debenham House in London). Isn’t that house just a little too big for Cenci to be living in alone (a point is made about how all the staff have been let go)? Well, of course. But this isn’t a realistic movie.
*. Instead, I think they were going after a kind of late-Hammer, neo-Gothic vibe. Or, as Tim Lucas more charitably puts it during the DVD commentary, something better approached as a “tone poem” than a narrative film. Though I’m not sure quite what that means. Lucas gives The Swimmer as an example, and also references Performance, so maybe a bit of that.
*. The story comes from a novella by the now mostly forgotten Argentine writer Marco Denevi. At least I asked a friend of mine who is a specialist in Latin American literature if anyone reads Denevi today and he said no. In any event, the story was dialed up for the big screen. For example, the novella has no incest, and indeed no Albert character in it, so the young woman isn’t named Cenci as there’s no need. And as for the title, I have no idea what the secret ceremony being referenced is. The play-acting that Albert and Cenci indulge in? That’s all I’ve got.
*. That the Albert character is wholly invented ends up leaving him a bit mysterious. Just what does he do? I thought for a moment that his name might have been a nod to Kinsey, since I think he’s meant to be a college professor who’s interested in sex. But Kinsey was an Alfred not an Albert so I really don’t know. And I’m not sure Mitchum knew either. From an interview he did with Roger Ebert: “I never did see Secret Ceremony, to tell you the truth. . . . They did some weird things with that script because contractually they had me for 10 days only. They were in trouble when I got there and I don’t think I improved the situation any.”
*. Directed by Joseph Losey, and let’s stick with that Mitchum interview for a bit more: “We were shooting in that hideous house the whole time. Joe Losey has an architectural fetish. Sometimes you think he’d be happy to clear the actors out altogether and just photograph the rooms. He never says a word. Not one word. He walks into a room and engineers and choreographs and the the actors go through it. Then he prints it, and that’s that.”
*. I can see where this is coming from. Losey really does seem a bit more interested in framing, camera angles, and lush interiors than he does in the actors. This actually helps set a decadent note, but the players seem like fish flopping about on the deck of a boat. What Farrow thought she was doing is totally beyond me. Perhaps she was still in shell shock after giving birth to the devil’s child.
*. Along with the interiors I mentioned — and you really do need to see the blue tilework on the walls of Debenham House — come some horrible wardrobe choices for Taylor. She looks ghastly, in the style that was thought fashionable at the time. I got a chuckle out of Cenci complaining “Where did you get these awful stockings?” because her stockings were the one wardrobe item that I thought actually looked pretty snazzy.
*. One of the strangest things about Secret Ceremony was it’s reception, then and now. Renata Adler, no gentle critic, pulled in her barbs: “although I don’t usually like this colored genre of sick ritual film, I rather liked this one.” David Thomson calls it “interesting, a true penetration of obsession, sadly spoiled by cuts” (I think these were made for television, as it didn’t have much of a shelf life in cinemas). Leonard Maltin’s capsule calls it an “Excellent psychological drama” and awards it three-and-a-half stars.
*. I can’t go along with any of this. The psychology on tap here is laughable, and the whole thing plays as rank and ridiculous. I’m glad I saw it because it is entertaining in a “How did Taylor and Mitchum end up here?” sort of way, but if you’re looking for something aside from camp in it I think you’ve come to the wrong address.