Tuesday, 21 July 2009
Losey at the BFI, Part # 3:
Secret Ceremony (1968)
As the innovations of the early ‘60s began to give way to the cultural upheavals of The Sixties as we know and love them, the kind of unconventional, psychologically/politically engaged, quasi-artistic filmmaking that Joesph Losey had pioneered in preceding years increasingly began to seem like ‘the in thing’, with the British film industry reeling in turn from the impact of Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’, Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Cul de Sac’ and Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’, ending the decade with the colossal bad trip of Donald Cammel’s ‘Performance’, a film that in many ways owes its very existence to the themes Losey explored in ‘The Servant’.
During these boom years for his brand of film-making, Losey seems to have immersed himself in a series of more high profile projects than he had previously attempted, moving into colour and toward more stable studio backing as he turned out the uncharacteristically light-hearted spy caper ‘Modesty Blaise’ (1966), followed in quick succession by a more consciously avant garde, but by most accounts less successful, reworking of the themes explored in ‘The Servant’ in 1967’s ‘Accident’, and ‘Boom!’ (1968), an absurd sounding vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that relocated a Tennessee Williams play to a Mediterranean Island.
Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity to see any of those films at the BFI, but I was lucky enough to catch screenings of Losey’s two subsequent films, ‘Secret Ceremony’ (1968) and ‘Figures in a Landscape’ (1970). And, boy, do they ever make for a strange double bill. Both are utterly unique films to the extent that they are almost without precedent in modern cinema, but at the same time they are so different from each other it’s almost impossible to believe they were made concurrently by the same man.
To start with ‘Secret Ceremony’, well…. christ, I don’t know where to start. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor and made up like a stern Roman Catholic housewife who’s gone slightly wrong, with weird zig-zaggy stockings and a black mourning veil, boards a London bus.
(The whole film is photographed in totally maxed-out Technicolor, but simultaneously with a very drab colour palette, as if Mario Bava relocated to Kilburn on an overcast day and only brought his brown and green filters.)
On the bus, she is silently hassled by Cenci (Mia Farrow), a witchy, wild-eyed young girl, who follows her when she gets off. It seems Leonora is going to the cemetery. On the way there, both women pass through the church, and pause to stare in desperate fascination at a christening service. In the graveyard, Leonora puts flowers on the grave of her daughter, who drowned aged eleven, as is recounted in detail on her tombstone. Turning around, she bumps into Cenci, and, in highly confusing moment, appears to recognize her as her dead daughter. Cenci, for her part, identifies Liz as her own dead mother, and precedes to drag ‘mother’ back to the opulent gothic mansion where it seems she has lived alone for many years, and there feeds her a yummy silver service breakfast. And my god, the house in this film is simply incredible – the vast main entrance hall is done out in beautiful neo-classical art nouveau frescos, whilst the inner rooms look like Elizabethan palace chambers stuffed with a mad range of antiques from all ages.
So, personally, I’d love to be accosted on buses by witchy girls who want to take me back to their gothic pads for breakfast, but Ms. Taylor seems quite unhappy about the whole situation. Not that it stops her from gratuitously stuffing her face and immediately declaring that she needs a nap and falling asleep on a kingsize bed.
Now at this point, one would be forgiven for thinking, what the hell is going on? Is Cenci really Leonora’s dead daughter, or is she really Cenci’s dead mother, or neither, or both, or what? None of the possible combinations really makes much sense, and the only thing that IS made clear to us is that both of these women are completely mad. And with no more reliable narrative voice to inform us of what’s actually going on, we spend the next… well, god, it seems like hours… simply watching them stumble around the decadent chaos of the mansion, acting crazy with each other.
They take a bath together in a big Victorian tub, and Cenci torments Leonora by repeatedly pushing a rubber duck under the water in mockery of the drowning of… herself?, her sister?, Leonora’s completely unrelated kid? – who knows. They choose outfits to wear for the day – hideous, hilarious outfits the like of which no sensible lady of any era would be seen dead in. Liz declares that she wants to find the perfect dress for a happy, bright sort of day, and rejects Cenci’s first suggestion (some sort of giant, woolen monstrosity) because “no dear, that’s the sort of thing you’d wear if it was bloody pissing it down”. Then she apologies for her language, declares it time for another nap and falls asleep.
The whole thing is highly reminiscent of the Maysles Brothers’ classic documentary Grey Gardens, and, like that film, ‘Secret Ceremony’ is a definitive example of pre-ironic camp, a movie that’s capable of reducing a modern audience to near constant fits of laughter and disbelief, despite being a very real and serious endeavor to its creators and participants.
At some point, two spiteful maiden aunts turn up to visit, and rudely taunt Cenci as they go about stealing some of the valuables laying about the house. It seems they run an antique shop solely off the back of all the stuff they’re ripping off from the house. Later in the film, Leonora goes to visit them there, memorably dressed in what seems to be a purple airline stewardess outfit and matching fez, and gives them hell about it, symbolically tearing a doll apart in the process.
Things take a(n even more) sinister turn as it becomes clear through their rambling, inconsequential exchanges that both women have suffered abuse at the hands of a man called Albert – second husband and step-father respectively, we gather – a circumstance they recall by giggling as they compare imitations of the sex noises he made them make.
Whilst Leonora is asleep, Cenci wonders down to the kitchen where she declares that “my virginity is the only thing I possess”, before she starts a conversation with an imaginary Albert, feeds him his dinner, and throws herself across the table, simulating being raped by an invisible assailant, in a violent transformation that seems to prefigure post-Exorcist possession movies. Watching from behind a paneled door, her ‘mother’ bursts into tears, and the camera shifts upward, across the surface of an out of focus grandfather clock….
And it is at this point readers that, for the good of us all, I must cease this scene by scene synopsis, because, well…. my god – it’s only the laughter that stops me from waking up at night screaming. I’ve maybe described about a quarter of what happens in the film, and from hereon in it just goes further and further off the deep end.
For one thing, Albert returns! He may be clad in a dirty mac, a truly ridiculous leprechaun beard and floppy hat, but yes, I’d recognize those drooping lids and inquisitive eyebrows anywhere…. it’s only motherfucking Robert Mitchum! He doesn’t seem too perturbed to see his dead wife peeking through the curtains, and returns later when she’s gone out to continue his affair with his step-daughter, who, despite clearly being massively traumatized by his previous interference, returns his advances in her own weird way, agreeing to shave his beard off for him (christ, SOMEONE had to), as he holds forth about his recent sexual history. Albert, it seems, is some sort of suave, irascible sex fiend who’s been off working in academia in America, enjoying the company of students, colleagues’ wives, daughters and anyone else unlucky enough to enter his orbit, but, like a comic book villain version of Humbert Humbert, he just can’t get the image of a young Cenci sliding down the banisters off his mind. “Do you realize”, says the droll, measured voice that once told us the story of left-hand right-hand, “that all over the Australian bush, fathers are banging their daughters like there's no tomorrow? What makes me any different?”
By and by, this whole merry crew end up relocating to the seaside, where the film reaches a level of high camp so sadistically feverish it could only really be put into its true context by a panel consisting of John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Herman Goering’s floating, disembodied brain.
I think I finally reached my breaking point during the sequence in which Mitchum confronts Taylor on the dunes. She is overseeing a lavish picnic, clad in a purple floral dress, push-up bra and a huge, girdle-style leather belt. “You look more like a cow than my late wife”, Albert observes, “no offense, I'm very fond of cows”. “Mooooo!”, he proceeds to taunt her, as she stabs at him in fury with a butter knife, in continuation of the surreal, nightmarish life and death struggle that seems to comprise this film’s final forty minutes.
In another scene that’s liable to be etched on my mind for longer than I’d like it to be, Leonora, goaded even further into hysterics, performs a symbolic abortion on Cenci, pulling the fluffy crab toy she’s been using as an ersatz baby out from under her dress and tearing it apart in a hideous, sledgehammer montage of screaming faces, tearing fabric and mad woman wrestling.
Needless to say, things stumble on toward a morbid, overblown gothic finale in which the fate of each member of our deranged love triangle is played out to the accompaniment of orchestral bombast and ridiculously overbearing religious imagery, as our weird protagonists’ faces are cross-faded into images of the crucifixion and…. shit, that’s it, I’m outta here.
I don’t know *what* to make of this film. Given its colossal strangeness, icky subject matter and complete lack of commercial potential, it is ironic that this is first of the Losey films I’ve seen that was made for a major American studio. Picture if you will, some poor commissioning editor at Universal, sitting in a dark room some time in 1968 watching a rough cut of ‘Secret Ceremony’, head in hands, muttering: “oh shit, I am in so much trouble”.
But then, hey, what do I know? Ok, so I’m someone who’ll happily put on a Female Prisoner: Scorpion movie to unwind with after tea, and ‘The Secret Ceremony’ reduced me to a gibbering wreck. But head over to the film’s page at IMDB, and you’ll find plenty of positive reviews from people – Liz Taylor fans mostly it seems – who are happy to regard it as a serious and successful melodrama about family breakdown.
Maybe that illustrates some kind of profound point about perceptions and expectations of mainstream vs. underground cinema, or maybe these people are all just fucking mad, who knows. I mean, maybe there are hundreds of sanity-shaking, borderline offensive films such as this one lurking in the hinterlands of ‘70s family melodrama, unseen by the likes of us cos they don’t have a name director attached? I don’t know.
But whatever – on some level, I suppose the IMDBers have a point. Buried somewhere within ‘Secret Ceremony’ is an effective gothic tragedy. Someone – was it Roger Corman maybe? – once said that the essence of any gothic horror story could be reduced to “a pretty girl goes into a big house, gets the shit scared out of her”, and, whilst ‘Secret Ceremony’ isn’t horror (well, not intentionally anyway), it is on that level that the film could have succeeded. In and of itself, Mia Farrow’s performance is startlingly good, and if the film had concentrated more on investigating her world – that of a damaged, deeply confused teenager living in fear amid the opulent ruins of her ancestors – well… it could have been beautiful.
But it isn’t. Joseph Losey’s capacity for visual and emotional excess we have already noted in some of his earlier films – for better or worse, it’s one of the things that marks him out as a director of such great interest. But combined here with his lack of interest in maintaining a clear-cut narrative, with a script (courtesy of George Tabori) that make the Andy Warhol Frankenstein and Dracula movies look like models of quiet good taste, and with Elizabeth Taylor cleaving into view like the dread revenant of a thousand ham-fisted melodramas, and…. well it’s a wonderful, awful, dignity pulverizing, nigh-on hallucinogenic nightmare of a motion picture, conceived and executed on an unself-conscious level that most of the subsequent filmmakers who have SET OUT to freak people out with this sort of thing could never hope to equal.
It’s as if in trying to take his established set of favourite themes – psycho-sexual power games, shifting identities and unconventional, destructive love triangles played out within the enclosed environment of a single building – and applying them to a group of characters who are dangerously mentally ill, Losey has somehow forgotten to examine that illness from an outside perspective, and instead has let it take over and command every aspect of the film. From the lighting and the costumes through the dialogue, the over-acting, the fragmented narrative, the seemingly endless, pointless emotional climaxes, ‘Secret Ceremony’ isn’t so much a film about people who are insane, it is more a film that has GONE insane.
Naturally I commend it to you in the highest possible terms. ‘Secret Ceremony’, ladies and gents. As the poster blurb for that other misunderstood cinematic gem ‘Wayne’s World II’ put it: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl.