The Balcony Review
Joseph Strick's 'The Balcony' is based on Jean Genet's play of the same name that deals with the nature of power and the blurring of fact and fiction and, as you might expect, is not a film to be dealt with lightly. The viewer is presented with an unnamed modern city upon which bloody and violent revolution has come. From here, we enter a brother within which the clients, powerless in real life act out fantasies of power with the girls within. The gas clerk becomes the bishop and so forth. When the chief of police needs surrogate rulers to solidify his position as de facto ruler, and all the real holders of the positions of state have been slaughtered, he turns to the brothel and its cast of great pretenders.
'The Balcony' is not an easy film to approach. Indeed, even the opening sequence in which we are presented with scenes from the revolution does its best to undermine our position. It's violent, bloody, real and dubbed with the sort of effects more usually to be found in the typical modern action film; punches are amplified and gunfire and explosions crack and rumble. It's an extremely powerful set of images and acts as a wonderful primer for what is to come. Violence of the psyche.
The issues at the heart of 'The Balcony' are as relevant now as they have been at any particular point in modern society; the very nature of power and how fact and fiction are but the playthings of those that hold offices of that power. There are no easy resolutions, and The Balcony is an example of the sort of film that makes the viewer do much of the working out. By the time you reach the end, you will be unsure of what exactly has just taken place. The breakdown in the narrative structure is perfectly timed and you won't be entirely sure at which point in the film it all got, shall we say, confusing. It's a film that leaves you with questions and the actual ending, the very last line blows the structure wide open. Genet himself was persuaded to allow the film adoption when it was pointed out to him by Strick that the modern version of the brothel of ideas and physicality (The Balcony of the film's title) was the movie studio and the end of the film works just as well as it does in the theatrical version.
Performances in the film are excellent. Lee Remick is wonderful as the assistant to the Madame, Peter Falk gives us a powerhouse of a Chief of Police played with oil, smarm and charisma. Jeff Corey, Kent Smith and Peter Brocco play the clients, promoted to real Bishop, Judge and General with just the right amount of confusion and bravado. And if you've ever wanted to see Mr Spock take his shirt off in a Marlon Brando-esque sort of way, this is the film for you.
The one criticism that can be fairly leveled at The Balcony is that it never quite escapes the staged aspect of it's source material. Strick is a director of exquisite inventiveness and smoke and mirrors, cardboard sets and stock footage are all utilized in the creation of his vision, but nothing really breaks through the stage bound action. On one level, though, this merely adds to the sense of unreality that pervades throughout. Back projection is used for one sequence and this actually works better, given the nature of the film and its loose interpretations of fact and fantasy, than location work would have.
'The Balcony' is recommended for those who like an enigma of a film, one that tugs at your subconscious long after the titles fade. It’s a film that reaches to the very heart of why our society works in the way it does, and presents unrelenting questions and dilemmas. It operates on many levels, the narrative level being the weakest and, as such, is not for those who wish to leave their brains switched off.
Presented in a fairly stagey 1.85:1 ration and non anomorphic at that. It's not the sharpest transfer you'll see and it does look quite dull at times. There's also a wide selection of print damage to look out for and, at times, this is quite severe but there's nothing that lasts more than a few frames and the contrast levels are quite high, taking into account the softness of the transfer. The stock footage, of course, varies wildly.
Solid, strong soundtrack with nothing to complain about. Explosions crack and rumble and dialogue, of which there is much, is clear and there is no trace of distortion or hiss. 2.0 only, but you won't notice.
Extras are limited to a leaflet, which although wildly exciting as you can imagine, does not really count as one but it is written by Joseph Strick and contains a wealth of anecdote about the film over its three pages. The Balcony is a film that deserves an audience, and much kudos to Arrow Films for ensuring it's back on the shelves. It would have been nice to have some extras, something must surely exist, but cost is probably an issue and it seems churlish to complain. The film itself is high quality and enough on its own to make this a purchase.
Click here for our review of Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, which has also recently been released by Arrow Films.