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Daughters of Darkness: Losey’s Neglected, Eccentric Psychodrama “Secret Ceremony” Resurrected | Blu-ray Review

“It’s Time to Speak of Unspoken Things,” read the tagline for Joseph Losey’s 1968 psychodrama Secret Ceremony, a bizarro bit of tawdriness about two raven haired beauties who are basically emotional vampires engaged in their own personal brand of existential codependency. And perhaps now we finally can speak on this unspoken film, considering it’s a title long forgotten from the director’s celebrated filmography, but definitely one of the most worthwhile gems from his B-side.

The title was the second film directed by Losey starring Elizabeth Taylor in 1968 (the other being Boom!, another arthouse oddity which John Waters famously termed ‘failed art’) and also featured an odd supporting cast, including Mia Farrow (the same year as Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby), Robert Mitchum and Peggy Ashcroft.

Aging prostitute Leonora (Taylor) lost her young daughter to drowning several years ago. By chance, she meets the waifish Cenci (Farrow) on a bus, the near mute young woman bearing a striking resemblance to her deceased child. As Leonora allows herself to be led by Cenci to a palatial estate, she gleans Cenci’s own mother, with whom she appears to be a dead ringer, is also dead. And so, she immediately begins to act as the mother Cenci so desperately needs. But two of Cenci’s aunts (Peggy Ashcroft, Pamela Brown) regularly show up to pilfer valuables to sell in their antique shop, and Leonora poses as the dead Margaret’s long-lost cousin. But Cenci’s menacing step-father Albert (Robert Mitchum), who had been kicked out of the house for molesting his step-daughter, has also been trying to return—and recognizes Leonora as a potential con artist.

Secret Ceremony plays like the love child of Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter, both writers Losey adapted (the former in Boom!, while the latter wrote scripts for The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between), a Southern Gothic situation relocated to a murky London setting far away from the exuberant tide of the Swinging Sixties.

The formidable estate inherited by Farrow’s Cenci (the only real foreign-tongued artifact which suggests the source material, a story by Argentinean writer Marco Denevi) plays like the opulent counterpart to the dilapidated estate housing the women of Grey Gardens, a spiritual cousin to what Losey’s doing here. Taylor, who sometimes had the misfortune of sounding a bit shrill by this time in her career (especially in anything co-starring Richard Burton after the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966) is quite demure considering the somewhat lurid material.

Though hardly the first time she’d portrayed a prostitute (she won her first Oscar for Butterfield 8, 1960), she was also fresh off playing another similar “Leonora” in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), an adaptation of Carson McCullers. Critics of the period weren’t as enthusiastic, but many commented on Taylor’s appearance unfavorably—even Renata Adler referred to her being ‘rotund’ in The New York Times).

Farrow is creepy as the ethereal and child-like Cenci, and the two women play quite well off one another, with sexual undertones spinning out of control once Robert Mitchum descends upon them, creating a triangular, incest-laden version of D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1967). Notably, 1968 was a formidable one for Farrow, who also starred in Rosemary’s Baby and Anthony Mann’s A Dandy in Aspic, and the sordid subtexts of Secret Ceremony also speak to the widely-publicized, long-standing allegations from her own household regarding Woody Allen decades later, adding to the film’s strangeness in retrospect.

Cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who lensed both The Go-Between and Mr. Klein for Losey) creates a London underbelly which recalls the energies of something like Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) or the mystical Venice of Roeg’s 1973 classic Don’t Look Now (the coded lesbian aunts played by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown also assists with this vibe), while the mother-daughter wish-fulfilment has been revisited many times elsewhere (though the dramatic thriller aspect feels most familiar in David Auburn’s The Girl in the Park, 2007).

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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