The Balcony Blu-ray Review: Cinematic Satire, I Guess

The Balcony (1963) is a cinematic adaptation of the French play by the same name from writer Jean Genet. It almost entirely takes place inside a most peculiar brothel overseen by Madame Irma (Shelley Winters). Peculiar because it is set up like a soundstage. The girls sit inside a warehouse filled with props and costumes and the like. When needed, they move inside smaller rooms equipped with backdrops, lighting, and even a movie camera. They enact odd little dramas. One man pretends to be a Catholic Bishop overseeing a confession where the girl admits to all sorts of depravity. Another man puts on the robe of a Supreme Court Justice and puts the prostitute on trial for a litany of crimes all while a cardboard-cutout jury watches on. A third dresses like a general and makes his lady pretend to be his gallant horse. The brothel will fulfill your wildest, strangest fantasies for a fee (credit cards are accepted). Irma oversees the proceedings with a detached tenderness. Carmen (Lee Grant), her assistant, handles the details, cataloging every customer’s hidden desires and payment histories.

Outside this wish-fulfillment palace, a revolution is raging. The play never indicates in what city or country the action takes place. One imagines it to be Eastern European. The film begins footage of people marching, buildings lying in rubble, and Leonard Nimoy throwing make-shift bombs.

The film spends way too long watching the various johns play make-believe before anything much happens. Eventually, the Chief of Police (Peter Falk) comes into the brothel. He’s a sometimes lover of the Madame and full-time hard-nosed politician. He tells Madame Irma that the Queen is missing in action and he’d like her to put on her fake crown and drive through the streets pretending to be her. That would help quash the revolution and give the people hope. She refuses. He notes that the Bishop, a Supreme Court Justice, and a General are all dead and as it just so happens the brothel has three people in it who have been impersonating those three men.

He cons them into wearing their costumes and being paraded down the streets. They drive past all sorts of destruction and see all sorts of dead and wounded. They give speeches and are applauded at every turn. This goes to their head and they start to believe they can keep on impersonating these heroes of religion and state and maybe start running things themselves. The Chief puts a stop to that and gives an impassioned speech full of the kind of nonsense we often here from the floor of the capital.

Eventually, the head revolutionary (Leonard Nimoy) shows up dressed as the Chief and the two have a rather funny showdown. Unfortunately, it is just about the only funny scene in the entire film. I’ve read other reviews that indicated The Balcony was hilarious, but I don’t see it. The film feels very French to me in that it creates these absurdities and uses them to mock institutions like the government and the Church. Sex is money and money is power. Which is all well and good, but I rarely found any of it funny.

It is beautifully shot, and the set with its multi-layers of rooms is wonderfully built. The acting is fine. Shelley Winters isn’t given much to do except make that face she makes in all her movies. Peter Falk bellows and leers, and is given all the best lines. It is a finely made film, I guess I just didn’t get the satire.

Kino Lorber presents The Balcony with a 1080p transfer that looks wonderful. Extras include an audio commentary from Tim Lucas, an interview with actress Lee Grant, and the usual trailers.

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Mat Brewster

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