Guest Star

Secret Ceremony (1968): Two Figures in the Void

This week Guest Star Sara Century watches Secret Ceremony (1968) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum. Sara Century is a horror writer, podcast host, and a critic. You can find out more at www.saracentury.com

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Trigger warning: This movie is upsetting and deals with sexual violence, self-harm, and death, therefore this article also deals with those things.

Despite its impressive cast, Secret Ceremony (1968) has fallen almost totally by the wayside in conversations around bizarre art house cinema relics of the twentieth century. This isn’t necessarily surprising, considering that the plot essentially follows a doomed sex worker attempting to fit into a motherly role for an isolated adult woman living in a suspended childhood due to years of rampant sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.

Yet, that isn’t the whole story with this film, nor with the critical reactions to it. It is generally referred to with the same amusement as Joseph Losey’s previous team-up with Elizabeth Taylor, BOOM! (1968). Yet, failing to see the underlying seriousness of this film’s themes and message would be to miss the point entirely. In the end, critical reception to this has always been uneven and difficult to parse. Though it doesn’t easily fit into really any genre except perhaps horror due to its upsetting subject matter and strange, spacious-yet-somehow-claustrophobic setting, it broached subjects that even today most would blanch at.

The plot follows a woman named Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor). Her day opens in a seedy hotel room, and we watch the feet of a man walking out, the door closing behind him. She prays, then goes to catch the bus. This is when Cenci (Mia Farrow) notices her, and sits too close, staring wide-eyed and fascinated. Leonora is uncomfortable, and tries to ignore her. Cenci follows Leonora through a church and into a graveyard. Leonora prays at the grave of her daughter, who drowned. The two women share a moment of painful eye contact, and the tables flip as Leonora begins to follow Cenci. Cenci leads her to the enormous mansion in which she lives completely alone after the death of her mother, who looks similar (but not strikingly similar) to Leonora.

Leonora and Cenci almost immediately begin playacting with Leonora in the role of Cenci’s mother. The illusion seems to delight and even comfort Cenci, and Leonora begins to realize she thrives off of this strange ritual as well. They are nearly safe with one another for a time, but, as always, the outside world demands to be let inside. First, this takes the form of Cenci’s aunts, who raid Cenci’s home, stealing things as they bully and overwhelm her, taunting her that her stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum) has been arrested for “interfering with a minor.” Leonora goes to confront the aunts, angry at them for taking advantage of Cenci. This is interesting, because when she first arrived at the mansion, she had eyed Cenci’s expensive things and even pocketed a gold coin herself. Yet, it was not Cenci’s money that made her stay, but the catharsis she desperately sought after losing her daughter. This is where we realize that whatever her initial intentions, she now genuinely wants to protect Cenci. When she finally meets Albert, however, she realizes that won’t be as easy as she had hoped.

Albert’s presence in this film is intense, infuriating, upsetting, and incredibly well-conveyed. He doesn’t even appear for nearly the first third of the movie, but his presence is everywhere. Cenci playacts a memory in the kitchen in which he attempted to rape her while Leonora watches with horror, realizes what happened to Cenci that stunted her emotional growth. Albert sends her dozens of postcards that contain no words, nothing more than a heart with an arrow through them. He creeps around the property, whistling a jovial tune, looking in windows. His pedophilia is blatant, but he shrugs it away with a smile and a self-deprecating lack of self-awareness that is meant to be conveyed as charm. He viciously insults and even jostles Leonora when he realizes that she is not charmed by him and she will fight to keep him away from Cenci.

After Albert makes the threat of his presence known, the film builds to its catastrophic head. Leonora fears losing Cenci to Albert, and Cenci becomes only more detached from reality as she pretends to be pregnant. Her lack of connection with the cold hard facts of what is happening causes Leonora to lash out, and they have a horrible fight. This leads to a tragic end for all involved, with Cenci perished, Leonora alone, and Albert, murdered.

It’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the absolutely legendary cast. Primary players are Liz Taylor, Mia Farrow, and Robert Mitchum, with more brief appearances from Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown. The cast is incredible in their roles, and they make it impossible to look away from the screen even when you kind of want to. It was based on a novella by Marco Denevi, and translated to the screen by George Tabori, a writer best known for penning the Hitchcock film I Confess (1953). Director Joseph Losey, once blacklisted in Hollywood as a communist, is considered a mixed bag for cinephiles, though his output is full of off-putting hidden gems. Regardless of the pretentiousness or campiness he is generally criticized for, there is still always something to be gleaned from his eye for composition and his inclination to bizarre subject matter. There is no clearer case for that than Secret Ceremony.

The studio was at a loss to sufficiently advertise for this film, and they leaned into the traces of lesbianism in the relationship between Cenci and Leonora. For his part, Losey is said to have felt that the lesbian imagery emphasized in the promotions was misleading, and that is true. It’s a story of abuse, loneliness, and the manifestations of painful feelings of abandonment for a young woman who can only define love as something that people take from her regardless of whether she’s able to give it or not, so it would be a Hell of a stretch to call it a film about a “lesbian affair.” To do so would be to simplify a complicated subject. The “lesbian overtones” of the film are undigestable and troubling, but they are still only one facet of a deeper psychological study. Cenci was clearly raised in a house where the boundaries and limitations between love and forbidden sexual desire were completely nonexistent, and her sexual affection towards Leonora is something she has been trained to give by her parental figures. Meanwhile, Leonora herself is used by men but for her own part seems incredibly sexually repressed and repentant of her life as a sex worker. That may very well indicate a sexual interest in women, but she still sees Cenci’s attempts for their perversity above all else. This is hardly a sensual story, and indeed Cenci’s advances and Leonora’s fear of her own response to them is what ultimately leads to a catastrophic showdown between the two women.

This movie is already difficult to get one’s hands on, though there is a fancy limited edition Blu-ray currently still available through the UK’s Power House Films. Slightly complicating matters is the fact that due to the box office failure of the film, in a time before cult films had their chance at a second life in midnight movie theaters, the film was sold to television and apparently mercilessly edited to adjust to the censorship laws of the time. This is to say that there are multiple versions of this movie, and not a lot of clarity around which is which. Still, if you’ve read this far, chances are that you’re willing to track it down.

In the end, Secret Ceremony’s emotional impact would be impossible with a mere summary of the plot, and might be better understood through a metaphor. Imagine, two figures in the void, reaching desperately out to each other, their fingers just barely brushing, only to miss one another, falling back into their own abyss for all eternity. That is the story of Leonora and Cenci. Their lives have been dictated by others, they have each lost the thing that kept them tethered, they reach out for each other… yet their own pain prevents them from connecting in an honest way. In the end, both are lost. Leonora’s last attempt at protecting Cenci comes painfully, tragically too late, and she ends the movie where she began, alone, in a hotel room, with nothing to look forward to but a long series of days, all just the same.

Yet, as her character is consistently reduced to “a prostitute” in reviews, as if that in and of itself is somehow an efficient descriptor of such a complex character, there is still a sense of defiant feminism in her last moments on the screen. She loses Cenci, but she is also the only one to truly mourn her. When she lashes out at Albert, we rest assured to know that he will no longer “interfere with minors,” he will no longer spit vicious insults at the mothers that try to protect their daughters, and he will no longer live to deceive himself that he had a connection with Cenci that was anything but predatory. In that way, Leonora is a troubled protagonist, a misguided and broken protagonist, one that might not be easy to like, but she is all that Cenci had.

The tempestuous moods and upsetting subject matter of Secret Ceremony make it impossible to forget, and to think of it feels much the same as being trapped in those dim hallways, alone with Cenci, isolated yet vulnerable, struggling to express terrible truths that we don’t have words for in our language. Despite being essentially torn to bits by critics of the time, Secret Ceremony remains a dark, haunting, unforgettable cult gem.

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