Monday, April 4, 2011



In the last couple of weeks, I've been minded to review one of the few metaphenomenal films from the oeuvre of the late Liz Taylor-- who did better films in this category than her husband Richard "Medusa Touch" Burton. Taylor, whatever her limitations as an actress, usually seemed to give her all when doing bizarre or unusual films. She might have even done well in the stodgy DOCTOR FAUSTUS if her characters had been given any lines.

Fortunately for me, TCM recently broadcast a restored version of SECRET CEREMONY-- which I assume is the most complete version available of the oft-scissored Joseph Losey film. Wikipedia remarks that often cuts were imposed to remove the film's intimations of potential lesbianism, as the above photo should illustrate.

However, it would be a misreading to think that Losey is simply stumping for camp effects, as some reviewers have claimed. The embrace above is not free of possible polymorphous perversity, but it fits the context of Jungian more than Freudian psychology. The embrace, at once somewhat erotic and smothering, calls to mind the image of the Ouroboros, the serpent biting its own tail. Jung called attention to the feminine undertones of the image:

The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow self. This feed back process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself t life again, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. This is much like the cycle of the Phoenix, the feminine archetype.

In addition, though I've been unable to track down an exact quote, Jungian Erich Neumann has been quoted as having related the ouroboros to the "undifferentiated infancy experience."

CEREMONY is about nothing less than the pyrrhic relationship between mother and daughter-- though here the mother and daughter are not literally related. Taylor's character Leonora, having lost a female child years ago, is drifting through a life of prostitution when she meets the waifish girl Cenci (Mia Farrow). Cenci, a rich heiress who lives in a fantasy-world, conceives that Leonora is her dead mother, and persuades Leonora to go back and live with Cenci at her posh but servantless estate. Leonora never completely loses her awareness that Cenci is not her lost daughter, but clearly she wants to believe in the fantasy as much as Cenci does.

The fly in their ouroboric ointment, of course, is a man: Cenci's stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum), who is the first to ferret out the peculiar relationship Leonora has with his stepdaughter. However, Albert is hardly one to cast stones, as he's had a quasi-incestuous relationship with Cenci. As if to take a leaf from Nabokov's LOLITA, Albert asserts that Cenci was the aggressor in the relationship, which further appalls Leonora insofar as she does not wish to think of Cenci as anything but her own lost child "reborn."

Yet director Losey validates Albert's self-serving account far more than Nabokov validates Humbert Humbert. Early in the film, following the scene in which Cenci first seeks to share Leonora's bed (and thus long before Albert shows up), tetchy Cenci goes off by herself to a secluded room and starts making suggestive remarks to "Albert," whom she imagined sitting before her in an empty chair. Clearly, despite the extremity with which Cenci is bound to the *imago* of her mother, she rebels against her mother's influence as well. From this and other scenes it's clear that it doesn't really matter whether Cenci or Albert was the sexual aggressor: either way, Cenci quite clearly enjoyed poaching on her mother's territory. Guilt certainly informs her fantasy that her mother has returned, and yet Losey avoids the gimcrack reductivism of Freudian analysis. Even after Leonora has learned all she can of Cenci's checkered history, she wants to remain a part of Cenci's life-- a testimony to the power of Cenci's delusion, in part supported by the wildly unlikely coincidence of two mutually bereaved people meeting as they do.

This is the first film I've treated here that fits the Fryean category "irony." In brief, the irony describes a world of "all passion spent," as Milton had it. Whether the characters are treated tragically or comically, there is generally a sense of the futility of purposeful activity. The ouroboros finally ends when Cenci takes her own life, and the film concludes with Leonora reciting an old fable:

There were two mice fell in a bucket of milk, one yelled for
help and drowned, the other kept pedaling around until, in the
morning, he found himself on top of butter.

In the context of CEREMONY, Cenci can only be the mouse that called for help, and perished, while Leonora has survived. But she survives in a world where she has lost her daughter twice, and so it seems unlikely that the mere fact of survival holds much value for Leonora.

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