DEMENTIA PEACOCKS

Under Losey’s dullard cool, Secret Ceremony is a crash course on pseudo Henry Jamesion schizophrenia, molestation and Liz’s mother love gone bonkers. Throw in wacky Mia Farrow, Dames Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown as “slightly Jewish” dyke kleptos and leprechaun-bearded Robert Mitchum and it becomes something akin to a comedic 60s “11th Hour” freakfest. Whatever the pretensions intended from the award-winning story by Argentinean Marco Denevi, they were put on the back burner with Liz and what’s cooking are meals of mockery, debasement, sexual peccadilloes. She serves up one deliciously bad entrée after another, so over-seasoned that watching her could cause a fast track to the toilet. (She’s often been diarrhetic—blowing out lines and facial reactions only the trisulfide of matches could dissipate.) But the shock of Liz—double chinned, teeth eaten away by the booze, in Woolworth black pajama-like blouse and skirt, legged in diamond-shaped mesh stockings—on her way to St. Mary Magdeline Church to pray after fellating a john and then heading towards the church’s cemetery to drop flowers on her daughter’s grave, with trailing Mia in delusional hope she’s her mother back from the dead, is just too irresistible for guilty pleasure seekers. At first, Mia’s a turn off; maybe I couldn’t get passed Ava’s famous quip that she “always knew Frank Sinatra would end up in bed with a little boy.” Yet she’s a marvel as a nubile bi-Peter Pan trapped in permanent looniness: instant bananas when she sits down next to Liz on the bus; eerily discomforting when brushing Mummie’s hair and unnerving when joining Liz in a post-Cleopatra bathtub; manipulative with teasing ambiguity when playing games with stepdaddy Mitchum; indescribable feigning rape and pregnancy; flesh crawling when rubbing Liz’s back; pulling out all the dementia-in-full-bloom stops to achieve her finale. Craziness is intended star but it’s the real house that steals the picture. Mazier urban London digs would be difficult to find: construction having started in 1898 and completed five years later, Denbenham House owes its imposing eclectic style to several architects, and its most outstanding features, aside from the labyrinth of halls, rooms, nooks and crannies, are the Moorish style balconies, woodwork and the blue and aquamarine tiles used inside and out. Scouting locations, Losey remembered the house because he’d often pass it when taking his son to a nearby school, and even production designer Richard Macdonald knew of it, though initially he thought it wasn’t quite right for the movie’s neurotic ambiance. Until he and Losey went inside: having been used for a time by a church organization to care for the mentally ill, they only had to clean up grounds, restore the William Morris wallpaper and add the art nouveau objects and fixtures and furniture. (The mother’s bedroom and attached bath were sets but their designs faithful to the house.) Notwithstanding Losey’s claims, there’s nothing about the story we’d care to believe as “realistic,” but we can accept that the psychoturgy performed as ritual by Liz and the other demented peacocks is likely the result of being overtaken by the house’s hallowed creepiness.

Because the catalog of Liz’s movies includes a few too many braying slatterns, it’s a difficult choice to name the most appalling one, but her psycho Lise in Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1974 version of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat would be high on everyones list. Were startled at the very beginning: seething in caustic edgy indignation when told by a clerk that the dress shes about to buy is made with the miracle of stain-resistant fabric, Liz vents the vapors and looks like we do when weve been on Jack Daniels for a longer time than we want to admit—bloaty-faced, murky-eyed, blemished to the max. In the stores dressing room, she wears a hefty orthopedic workhorse bra that is grossly suggestive—rollover picture at left. Watching mesmerized by the successive scenes of dissipation, aided and abetted by Vittorio Storaros camera, we begin to feel theres an effort towards a breakthrough, shes determined not to be the glamour puss with a cadre of camouflagers hiding all thats become defective in face and body. Not the intentional deglamourizing as in Virginia Woolf, but the kind of cheap-thrill freedom we get when we know were really cutting loose on the slum low. She has bits here that are far and away some of her best flash moments—for example, at airport security, and on the plane, when shes seeking the attention of one man (the attractive man-boy played by Maxence Mailfort) but ends up getting it from another (the repulsive Ian Bannen as a macrobiotic nut). She has bitch-fun when Bannen kisses her, followed by a brief scene in which she rubs her tits, and soon takes off her dress to show us shes still got enough of a shape to walk around in a slip. Then—Dios Mia!—she discovers a dirty glass in the bathroom of her hotel room. The flash continues in a store when she steals a scarf, in a car with a stud mechanic who wants her to give him a blowjob. Its a performance unlike anything shes done before or since; theres a disquieting energy in it, probably booze-induced, maybe desperate, and at times theres something new, even unsettling in the voice, too. (In so many of her movies, including her moments here with Mona Washbourne in a taxi, were irked by her shifts to crappy inconsistent accents, often in the same sequence. Where did this shit come from? Her years with Burton, when his voice supposedly swamped hers so frequently that she had to come up with affectations to thwart him?) Looking this disshelved, with hair ratted up, so gaudy in guest bathroom wallpaper dress and coat that her landlady laughs at her, traipsing around with a plastic handbag, its easy to suggest Liz has the same death wish as her crazed character. Many things go haywire in this movie but her daring isnt one of them; shes cult classic fearless.

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