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The Balcony
cast: Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Leonard Nimoy, and Peter Brocco

director: Joseph Strick

84 minutes (15) 1963 widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
The Balcony is the stuffy sort of film that the American industry once thought was 'art', even as the effects of the nouvelle vague began to filter through suggesting otherwise. A provocative play by a continental author (Jean Genet), full of prestigious and soon-to-be-illustrious names (Shelly Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Leonard Nimoy, et al), shot in crisp black and white (duly nominated for an academy award), music by a genius (Stravinsky) spiced up with cinema vérité news footage and laced with sexual-political overtones, how could it not be? Contemporary reviewers obviously went along: "This film is a remarkable achievement from any point of view. All in all ... not to be missed" (The Guardian). "..first choice for the year among American films" (Daily Telegraph), and so on. Unfortunately now the results seem less impressive. It's stagey, full of self-conscious dialogue played self consciously, and determinedly un-cinematic. Watching the results these days the viewer is more likely to wonder what went wrong.
   Director Strick virtually made a career out of determinedly literary adaptations: following the present film came Ulysses, Tropic Of Cancer (1970) and Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man (1977). He made documentaries too, but it was with the adaptations that he strived most to be culturally meaningful, even if the results were never first-rate. The Balcony was the first such outing, and perhaps the least impressive - a production in which, as others have noticed, his literalness as an adaptor hinders rather than encourages the transfer to big screen. As Genet amply demonstrated in his masterpiece Un chant d'Amour (1950), artistic significance can often be best created by the most indirect and poetic means - a process that the director might have here, with benefit, remembered.
   Set in a brothel, Strick's film takes place within a city wracked by (unspecified) revolution. Oblivious to the upheavals happening outside, the power-deprived customers of the whorehouse are sold illusions of power, living out their fantasies before the women as such characters as judges, bishops and generals. Things change though, when one of the madam's (Shelly Winters) occasional lovers, the Chief of Police (Peter Falk) asks for help. First, it's for her to impersonate the Queen, then for her clients to help end the revolution by acting out those roles they had only played in fantasy. They succeed admirably in those parts they have acted out for so long; explosions devastate the city. Then, they too are deposed by a new revolution...
   The result is an uneven and somewhat tedious melange of humour, surrealism, melodrama and socio-political comment. There are important parallels to be drawn between the immoralities outside and inside the brothel, but in the event the balance is rather laboured, while many of the observations remain rootless. While Genet's play undoubtedly must have worked in its original theatrical incarnation, plonked down here amidst a rout of American thespians determined to see it done justice, its edge is fatally blunted by studio compromise, the result frequently, boredom. Naturally the work of a homosexual former social outcast and thief would have suffered in any American adaptation at this time, as cultural sensibilities were so different. His brothel, supposedly serving the "wildest ambitions and fantasies of its clients" is here without either real fantasy or wildness, in a film that desperately seeks genuine politicisation to sink its teeth into, but merely chews around the edges of 'significance'. It might have been a brave project for the time, even daring, but the obscure dullness of it all today is unforgivable.
   Stravinsky's music intersperses the action, but being a selection of existing pieces plonked down in situ rather than an original score - in fact, the composer never wrote one - its divertimento clarity only points up how glum and obscure much of the action is which it supports. Jerry Fielding's adaptation of A Soldier's Tale for Straw Dogs (1971) shows how some effective arranging might have been done, but one supposes Stravinsky had the casting vote on this occasion and was presumably happy with the result. Winters is fatally miscast as Madame Irma, the 'lesbian letch' who runs the show, entirely missing the sophistication her role demands. Other members of the cast act out their roles with appropriately straight faces, but only Peter Falk retains lasting credit, lending his part something of the intensity it demands.
   No less a talent than Fassbinder also struggled, perhaps surprisingly, with a Genet adaptation when he directed the unsatisfactory, though considerably more watchable, Querelle in 1982. Outside of Genet's own film, perhaps the most memorable adaptation of his work also stars Shelly Winters, this time freed from the millstone of cultural obligation: the cult item Poor Pretty Eddy (1973, wrongly given by IMDb as a second version of The Balcony) which, in its own bad taste way is probably a 100 times more subversive than Strick's establishment effort...
   The DVD features a good print of the film but no extras - not even a trailer, only bare chapter access, together with a printed short memoir by the director.
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