Psychosexual Family Drama is Compelling But Uncomfortable to Watch



Secret Ceremony was one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve ever had.  Despite that, I watched the movie twice so that I could give it a fair evaluation.  The first time through my reactions ran the gamut from A to B – appalled to baffled.  On the second viewing I was able to appreciate the film a bit more.  Nevertheless, both because of qualities inherent to the movie and because of the ways in which life has imitated art, Secret Ceremony left me feeling like I needed a shower.  This is, after all, a movie that includes insanity, pedophilia, incest, suicide, and murder.  And on top of all that, it is wildly, inexplicably bizarre.

Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is a middle aged prostitute living in London.  We see her small rented room, the blonde wig she pulls off as an anonymous man leaves her building, the pile of money on her dresser next to a photo of a serious looking girl dressed for first communion.  It’s a quick and clear depiction of the grim, lonely circumstances of Leonora’s life.  But after that scene, get ready to be confused.

Dressed in black, Leonora rides a city bus.  A young woman (Mia Farrow) sits next to her and stares at her intensely, even calling her “Mummy” at one point.  The young woman (we later learn that her name is Cenci) follows Leonora to a church where Leonora witnesses an infant baptism and visits the grave of her daughter, who died in a drowning accident at age 10.  After this, Cenci takes Leonora by the arm and leads her, not against her will, to Cenci’s home, a glorious art deco mansion.  It’s soon clear that Cenci thinks Leonora is her mother (photos of the late mother do show a striking resemblance), and wants Leonora to stay.  The prostitute seems both repulsed and attracted to playing along with this delusion:  repulsed by Cenci’s childlike neediness; attracted to the house and the dead mother’s gorgeous designer clothes.

There are almost no words spoken in the first 20 minutes or so of Secret Ceremony.  When the two women do begin speaking to each other it’s often in non sequiturs, and their emotional affects are careening all over the place.  Close attention to the cryptic exchanges foreshadows what’s to come, but it took me until the second viewing to make heads or tails of the first act of this movie.

In short, Cenci’s father died long ago.  Her mother remarried, to an American professor (Albert, played by Robert Mitchum) and that marriage ended when the mother discovered Albert and Cenci in bed together.  Cenci took care of her dying mother alone, and is now only visited by her two eccentric and unscrupulous aunts, Hannah and Hilda ( depicted as delightfully amoral by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown) who visit only to pillage the house.  Cenci is a strange, gaunt, emotionally stunted woman-child desperate for the love of her dead mother.  In Leonora, she believes she’s found it.

Leonora becomes a more willing accomplice in Cenci’s mental illness until “Daddy Albert” shows up and resumes his relationship with Cenci.  The rest of the film is a battle of wills between Leonora, who sees in Cenci a chance to ease her guilt over her daughter’s death, and Albert, who insists that he knows who Cenci really is:  a grown woman with sexual appetites that only he can fulfill.

There is a lot about Secret Ceremony that is striking and strange.  It is simultaneously elegant and perverse; beautiful and brutal.  The setting for Cenci’s home was the Debenham House in London.  It’s been featured in several movie and TV productions and for good reason.  The gilded mosaics and brilliantly colored tiles light up the film’s color scheme, as does Taylor’s wardrobe full of jewel toned designer outfits.  Farrow is dressed in short, loose fitting dresses and knee highs, which along with her long hair, blunt bangs and bright eyes make her look authentically childlike.  I was stunned when I realized that Farrow made Secret Ceremony immediately after Rosemary’s Baby.  But as lovely to look at as much of this is, the dialogue and characters are another matter.  There’s a pervasive vulgarity, starting with Leonora’s first meal in Cenci’s home, in which she rapidly devours an enormous pile of sausages and pastries, ending with a loud burp.  Tenderness is  followed by cruelty and insults.  And everywhere there is a heavy atmosphere of sexual disorder.

But it is Robert Mitchum’s role as Albert that makes this movie such a challenge to watch.  If you want a glimpse at how societal attitudes have changed, read the reviews of Secret Ceremony written on its release.  Most critics seem to take Albert’s word for it that Cenci was a nymphomaniac who seduced him.  But the script itself paints a more complex and realistic picture.  Cenci is certainly obsessed with sex: she still plays make believe, and the scenarios are always sexual.  She asks Leonora sexually explicit questions about her father and step-father, and behaves in ways that hint at a boundary-crossing physical relationship with her mother.  But Albert’s conduct makes clear that he was a predator when he met Cenci as a young girl, and remains one now.  Reunited with Cenci, he recalls his first time seeing her “sliding down the bannister in your blue jeans, and I said, ‘That’s for me.’”  He talks academically of the taboo against incest being a “symptom of the private property system”, and in case we think this behavior is a one-off Cenci’s aunts report that “Daddy Albert” was recently arrested in Philadelphia for “interfering with a minor”.  “They call me ‘the wretched leacher,’” Albert reports proudly.  Once Albert’s character comes into focus, Cenci’s odd combination of childishness and sexual aggression starts to look much more like a trauma response to abuse than like the conduct of a seductive homewrecker.  “Nobody is just a nice old man,” she tells Leonora, undoubtedly from painful experience.

I won’t linger here long, since I think most people know the background on Woody Allen’s marriage to his current wife, Soon-Yi Previn.  Previn is the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, and was around 9 years of age when Farrow began a romantic relationship with director Woody Allen.  In 1992, when Previn was a college student, Farrow found nude photos of Previn in Allen’s apartment and discovered that her daughter and Woody Allen (35 years Previn’s senior) were having an affair.  Previn and Allen later married and remain married, but the dynamic of Allen entering a sexual relationship with his longtime partner’s daughter, someone he watched grow up, does not sit well with many observers.  Allen’s reputation was not helped when his adopted daughter with Farrow, Dylan, accused him of having sexually abused her when she was a young child.

Seeing Farrow play out onscreen a scenario that would later come to pass in her own life is, frankly, stomach churning.  Cenci is a victim, and while Leonora’s decision to pretend to be Cenci’s mother is misguided, she has one very right instinct:  she believes that the adults in Cenci’s life utterly failed her.  “How can anyone kill so casually, just by looking away?” she asks Hannah and Hildy, as they wash their hands of responsibility for Cenci’s suffering.  Leonora is determined to protect Cenci in a way that her mother and aunts never did.  When she is unable to protect, she turns to avenging the wrongs perpetrated by Albert.

All that I’ve just written about Secret Ceremony obscures how weird the movie is.  The bath scene, the aunts sniffing their dead sister’s bed, the sexual play-acting between Leonora and Cenci, the fake pregnancy, Albert’s discussing with his sisters’ his academic research into “tumescence”.  Secret Ceremony is one of John Water’s favorite films, and that makes sense.  But it’s not camp.  It’s not silly.  In fact, it’s the opposite of silly: the film’s soul is gothic.  Director Joseph Losey established a career in England after being blacklisted in the U.S. and built a cult following with cheaply made, elegant but emotionally florid genre films.  Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of Secret Ceremony includes trailers for three Losey films (The Criminal, Modesty Blaise, Accident) and they all look over the top in one way or another.  But I can’t imagine how any of them could be stranger or more over the top than Secret Ceremony.