Pulling back the curtain on two of the director’s most stirring works.
For the longest time, I always considered the polarizing and daring director Joseph Losey to be of pure European stock. With his penchant for risque stories and unconventional filmmaking sensibilities, Losey always seemed like the quintessential international film maestro who didn’t hesitate to push the boundaries of film every time he stepped behind the camera. But the Wisconsin-born Losey was an American who proved he saw the world beyond the confines of both his midwestern upbringing and even Hollywood. The director’s trio of 1951 films, M (a bold Fritz Lang remake he actually pulls off), The Big Night and The Prowler all took their plots and characters to storytelling limits an are now hailed as stunning works. Losey tends to be skipped over when examining the infamous Hollywood blacklist, but the director was almost certainly a victim of it. Ask Losey however, and the director appeared to be almost grateful for the artistic freedom it provided, which resulted in a swift European exile and a collection of some of the most striking films any expat ever made.
In 1967’s Accident, university professor and family man Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) finds himself taken by a beautiful foreign student named Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), despite being happily married with two kids to the expecting Rosalind (Vivien Merchant). Stephen must fight his feelings as they turn to jealousy when both a colleague (Stanley Baker) and a student (Michael York) likewise confess to him that they’ve fallen for Anna as well. Meanwhile in Secret Ceremony, a penniless woman named Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) still grieving over the loss of her child from years earlier develops a friendship with a young woman named Cenci (Mia Farrow) whose deceased mother has left her with nothing but a large house and memories of a traumatic experience.
Losey was never one to shy away from controversial territory, with some even suggesting he wholeheartedly courted it. This was never truer than with both Accident and Secret Ceremony. Stephen, Charley (Baker) and William (York) all having sexually explicit desires for Anna and the presumption that she’s been to bed with at least two of them is scandalous for sure, but not the most alien concept, especially for that part of the decade. The fact that Charley is married but blatantly carries on an extramarital affair which develops into a genuine romance (at least on his part) only fuels the fire of controversy. Losey took things even further when it came to Secret Ceremony by embracing the script’s theme of incest. When the reason for Cenci’s emotional stuntedness is revealed, it’s not the biggest of shocks. What is a shock is seeing the character relive the trauma when her tormentor returns. Seeing her devolve further into a little girl while clinging to her abuser is just as disturbing now as it no doubt was back in 1968.
What makes both Accident and Secret Ceremony so compelling are neither the names in front of or behind the screen; nor is it the dangerous terrain or storytelling content Losey was exploring. Instead, it’s how the director weaved the two together and created a reality both familiar and eerily strange. The two films are both versions of real life, with everyone in them taking on facades. Each character is going through life pretending. Stephen is pretending to be content with his marriage to Rosalind, who refuses to acknowledge that her marriage isn’t what it is as her husband refuses to accept his feelings for Anna, who is pretending to love all three men.
Meanwhile in Secret Ceremony, Leonora and Cenci are so deep into the art of role playing that they have all but lost themselves by accepting each other as the real-life people they’ve lost. In a way, Stephen, Anna and the rest are all vampires wandering about; all of them are alive, but nothing more. On the other end of the spectrum, Leonora and Cenci come across like ghosts who exist for one another, taking the place of the most important figure in the other’s life. Losey looks at these shells of men and women, not with pity or judgment, but with honesty and curiosity as he seeks to uncover the dark truth lurking within each one.
While Losey was a filmmaker with a very specific approach towards material that was considered shocking (to say the least), his ability to pull top actors remained impressive. It’s hard to imagine material more frightening, yet certainly intriguing than the kind which made up a Losey film, with each one giving actors and actresses plenty of room to play. Accident and Secret Ceremony would be the second and final collaborations between the director and both Bograde and Taylor. Four years before Accident, Losey directed Bogarde in The Servant, the actor’s darkest role, which saw him play a dangerously manipulative manservant to a wealthy British gentleman. It was a role rooted in malice and danger, which Bogarde wholeheartedly got lost in. Accident sort of sees him in a reversal from The Servant as he plays a man who isn’t outrightly manipulated by any one person, by what he believes his reality to be.
As for Taylor, the same year she starred as the grief-stricken mother in Secret Ceremony, she gave what was probably her most flamboyant role to date as a woman dictating her memoirs from her otherworldly home on her private island in Losey’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Boom. The film, which also stars Richard Burton as a “young” poet who bewitches Taylor, and Noel Coward as a character known only as “the witch of Capri,” remains the most outlandish film Losey ever made. Yet no part of it is as outlandish as Taylor whose character functions in a way which virtually defies logic. When she bumps into a domestic, causing him to spill the tray of drinks he’s carrying, her response is to scream out: “Shit on your mother!” Yet, the roles in both Boom! and Secret Ceremony speak to Taylor’s willingness to venture out of the dramatic comfort zone for which she was known and inhabit women whose existences were guided by realities in which they were trapped.
Like many of Taylor’s acting choices of the late 60s/early 70s which saw her happily take risk after risk, Secret Ceremony was nowhere near a success, despite the actress’s unquestionable commitment and Losey’s ability to capture it. The same chilly response was delivered to Accident, with many claiming it was nothing more than a sordid arty drama. It would be years before the film would be proclaimed one of Losey’s masterpieces. For the director, the final decade of his career was a mixed bag that included the success of the romantic period drama The Go-Between, the direness of A Doll’s House (Losey’s battles with star Jane Fonda got more attention than the film) and a personal triumph with the director’s long-gestating Galileo finally coming to the screen. Although almost no two Losey films were ever alike, each one contained the common thread of being guided by an artist set on pushing the boundaries of reality and what it could mean for cinema.
Accident and Secret Ceremony are both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.