Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. [Volume 39, Number 19, 1976.]
The Balcony — Lido Cinema
This film is a free adaptation of Jean Genet's play of the same name. Mme Irma runs a "House of Illusion". Inside men may act out their fantasies: they provide the scenarios and Irma the costumes, sets and girls. They play opens with successive scenes of a Bishop, a Judge and a General indulging in gross ego-satisfying rites. They are of course three nobodies come to fantasize.
Outside the whole city is in revolt. Into the brothel comes the omnipotent (in his eyes) Chief of Police. As the rebellion progresses he realises that if he is to retain his power the dead or missing nominal leaders of the country will have to be replaced So Irma becomes the Queen, and the three nobodies become in real-life what they have been in make-believe.
Naturally it is real-life with differences, not the least of which is the fact that the whole plan is on one level the Police Chief's own fantasy. Yet he still has a problem: no-one who comes to the brothel ever wants to play him. He cannot build an empire and a monument to himself if no-one knows who he is.
But eventually someone does come: it is Roger, the leader of the rebels. Through his enactment of the role the grossness of both his and the Police Chief's ambitions are exposed. That is a beguilingly simple synopsis of the play. The themes are complex and the plot progresses mainly by intimation, with the dialogue always functioning simultaneously on several levels.
Although it is not always appropriate to compare a film to the original written work, in this case the process does help illuninate the weaknesses of the former.
Genet does not make it at all clear in the first three scenes what we are watching. The Bishop, etc., are obviously grotesque parodies, but within the context of the play they could be real. But by establishing the brothel and Irma's role as Madame before these scenes, and by the use of shots of painted scenery. Director James Strick makes the whole situation patently obvious.
Theatrical elements dominate both film and play. But whereas in a stage production they would often be quite naturally present, their inclusion in the film makes their thematic importance too blatant. After having shown us real street fighting in the opening sequence (not present in the play) the use of a projected backdrop later on doesn't work. That fantasy and reality are mixed is quite clear in the text. In the name of clarity, uses physical representation to replace ambivalence with naivety, the play has no crowd scenes and works without them, yet the film gains nothing by including them in a theatrical manner.
Genet has the Bishop and Judge both weaning cothurni (actors' built-up shoes) to symbolise the false but menacing power of their roles, and also relate theatre to fantasy. Such details are structurally necessary to the complex nature of the play, but strick by and large dispenses with them to present what is little more than a garishly ornate but basically simple story of love and power. The motives of Genet's Irma for becoming Queen are complicated, but in the film she dresses for no other reason than to please her lover, the Police Chief.
This Hollywood appraoch becomes a little too much to take when Roger and the Chief of Police have their clothes stolen and are forced to prance around in a quite uncalled for bedroom comedy style. Genet is not a good model for half-pie slapstick. It is because the film is far less an allegory than a romance that it is significantly weaker than the play.
Acting in the film is generally of a high standard, although difficult to appreciate b because it is so firmly entrenched in the American early '60s style. (Don't be put of by the advertisements: Leonard Nimoy's Dr Spock-like Roger is a small part). There is one remarkable scene, played in front of an enormous mirror which has a remarkable exposing effect on the characters; and the riot scenes at the beginning, though misplaced, do add a note of stark realism for anyone unwilling to accept the conventions of the play.
Overall, however, The Balcony is an unhappy marriage between intellectual complexity and badly worn commercial formulae.