Barbara Sawyer (Elizabeth Taylor) has checked into this private clinic for a facelift, but has not told anyone that this is what she has in mind. She wants to keep it a surprise for her husband Mark (Henry Fonda), who has drifted away from her over recent years, and is having an affair with a younger woman - if Barbara looked younger, would he come back to her? That is the chance that she is going to take, and after wavering over whether she should go ahead with the procedure or not, a talk with the surgeon (Maurice Teyrnac) persuades her...
There then follows a sequence which made this film notorious in its day, for it featured actual plastic surgery footage edited in to make it look as if Taylor was undergoing the same thing, plunging the drama into something more fitting for a mondo movie. Certainly at the time audiences were squirming in the aisles during the first fifteen minutes, but later on, once the visual horrors of someone getting the face cut and stretched and stitched up were over - it resembles a David Cronenberg effort - they started squirming for different reasons. That's down to the rest of the film being an excruciatingly boring hymn to the beauty of its star, as if once they had got over the sensationalist part they seemed unsure of what to do next.
The whole point of the story is what a fool Mark is for giving up Barbara, but we don't arrive at that until the film is almost over: it's literally in the last five minutes that he makes up his mind, guaranteeing any dramatic tension in the "will he, won't he?" stakes has long since dissipated. In the meantime, Taylor wanders around the skiing resort of Cortina, after being invited there by international fashion photographer David (Keith Baxter), who she met at the clinic and is a convert to the wonders of cosmetic surgery. But even he isn't around when she shows up, leading to acres of footage of Liz gazing pensively into the middle distance, or more likely gazing pensively at her own reflection after yet another man has told her how beautiful she is.
After a while you think, all right, we get it, she's still an attractive woman, but Ash Wednesday comes across as Taylor desperately trying to convince the viewer that she's still got it, and once the old age makeup is removed and the bandages come off, you do indeed think, yeah, she looks good for her age (early forties at the time). But when there's nothing more to the plot than that, this is thin stuff to be building a movie around, and is more likely to have you pondering what the actress might have had done in real life under the surgeon's scalpel (she claims she hadn't had much, and hadn't been through it at the stage she made this). If nothing else, Ash Wednesday resembles some massive ego trip.
Even if it was not a vanity project for the star, and she didn't write the script so perhaps the filmmakers were setting out to flatter her into accepting the role, Taylor-made for her if you will, the other stars are not quite as lucky. Fonda especially doesn't appear to have wanted to make the project at all judging by the way he leaves it to the last possible second to make his entrance, which might have been because he is such a louse in this, although it does give rise to the most famous speech in this where Barbara shows off her new form and wildly tries to convince her husband that this is what he wanted all along. Either that or she is utterly deluded and cannot accept that Mark has moved on and so should she, and be happy that she now gets her pick of the younger men who stray into her orbit: kept man Helmut Berger becomes her first conquest while she's staying at the hotel, apparently forever. It's easy to laugh at Ash Wednesday, but it's just as easy to yawn. Music by Maurice Jarre.