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Boudoir of the World

Jean Genet's 'The Balcony' and Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Le Amiche.'

Jean Genet's play, The Balcony, has a considerable history of adaptation in its short life. It was first published in 1956 in fifteen scenes; it was subsequently published in 1960 in nine scenes. (This is the version available here in translation.) Its first production was in English - London, 1957-over the author's violent protests about the way it was produced. It was first pre- sented in New York, off Broadway, in March, 1960 and was condensed before the opening; it was presented in France the following May and was condensed after the opening. It has now been radically adapted for the screen and has been filmed off-Hollywood.

The Balcony is the name of a brothel in an unidentified country that is torn by revolt. This brothel, an imaginatively equipped palace of illusion, is an observation post from which the bloodshed and struggle can be watched; and the fantasies that the clients act out with the girls are caricatures of the world outside, Three regular customers have always enacted a bishop, a judge, a general, and in a moment of crisis they have to masquerade as such in the real world. The chief of police, busy suppressing the rebels, takes time to visit the madam, who is his mistress. One of his frustrations is that no client has yet wanted to impersonate him. The rebel leader appears toward the end and asks to impersonate the chief. At the conclusion of his scene with a girl, the leader castrates himself. The characters disperse. The revolt is either a success or a failure; it is not clear. The madam addresses the audience: "You must now go home, where everything--you can be quite sure--will be even falser than here."

Even this stripped summary discloses that the play is a fantasy on themes of power and of relative values, as mirrored in extreme rituals of sex. Genet's plays have been shoved into the hastily convoked School of the Absurd, but they do not belong there. Both before and after The Balcony, he has shown himself a poetic dramatist of social protest. The modes of meaninglessness--of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Adamov—are remote from this man whose life and work have been acts of assault, hatred of degraded ideals. There is cruelty in the Absurdists, but there is little hate. Hate is impossible without ideals, and ideals are impossible in the theater's current reductio ad Absurdum.

The screenplay of The Balcony, by Ben Maddow, tries to slice down to the themes of the original, articulating them somewhat differently. In a narrow sense the script is an improvement. Genet poses vivid situations, then does not develop them dramatically. For example, each of the clients' scenes begins startlingly, but after one has perceived both the fetish and its symbolism, which takes about a minute, nothing further comes of the scene but verbal embroidery on the initial situation. On a larger scale the play could be summed up the same way: it is a basically startling and promising image which is not successfully developed. One does not ask for copybook maxims from a poetic drama, but on Genet's own terms, the metaphors do not generate sufficient tension, do not grow and burst, as the act of drama should. The best effects are those of lyric poetry, which has only to establish striking figures in apposition and need not do much more with them.

Maddow, sensing this, has tried to impose stricter form and direction on the material, has shortened and simplified. Thus some of the theatrical tedium has been excised, but, inevitably, so has much of the imagery and idea. If Genet had shaped the work better, it would be a better play; Maddow's shaping only makes it more stream-lined, And, while altering, Maddow has added mere gags (the general settles his bill with a credit card); and he has disrupted the tone of the work by fluctuating between bitter fantasy and broad satire. The police chief makes a jabberwocky radio address; the three fake officials make a farcical triumphant tour by car and pay a meaningless visit to the morgue; the castration is omitted, and the chief and the rebel fight--stopped only by the whores' stripping them naked at the madam's orders. Yet this same script might have become a more satisfying film in the hands of a more gifted director. Joseph Strick, who previously made the sophomoric Savage Eye, has little knowledge of acting, a trite pictorial eye, and less sense of tone than his scriptwriter. Under the titles we see a montage of newsreel shots: street riots, raging mobs. From this scary reality we switch to the brothel, which does not seem to be related even in fantasy to this grainy newsreel world. (When the three fakers later ride through the streets, the newsreel shots, which had previously been used with the grimmest reality, are now used for Chaplin-esque effects.) Within the chimerical brothel itself, the film is handled without evocative poetic effect. The camera is factual; it needed the touch of a Cocteau.

Strick cannot help insecure actresses like Joyce Jameson and Arnette Jens, and he has miscast Ruby Dee. Peter Falk, an actor of guttural capabilities, is never allowed to make the police chief either a power symbol with comic facets or a Marx Brothers butt. Shelley Winters, the madam, is much too earthbound to be an Earth Mother. We could believe her as a madam in Toledo or Tulsa, not as the archetypal madam of Nowhere and Everywhere. However, the film does give substantial opportunity to that shamefully neglected actress Lee Grant, who plays the madam's Lesbian friend. How prodigally wasteful our theater and films are, not to offer fuller scope to this fine actress.

The merits of the picture, which exist, must not be scanted. It is worth applauding the elementary fact that it was made, that something was done--even if it was adapting a French play--to keep American films at least vaguely in touch with what is happening in the rest of the world. More positively, after all the faults have been noted, the picture contains a residuum of the suggestive ambiguities of Genet's play. And it conveys some sense of sex as ambience, sex not merely as the pleasures of the bed but as a pervasive force, a medium for mysteries, revelations, fulfillments.

Le Amiche (The Girl Friends) is early Antonioni, made in 1955 before ll Crido and the trilogy. Its intricate story is woven around the residence in Turin of a young couturiere from Rome: her arrival to manage an expensive fashion salon, her meetings with women, her acquisition of a lover, and, because of an emotional outburst, her return to Rome. The worlds are those of the upper middle class and of art (like the trilogy), and some of the sequences are superb. There is an expedition to the beach that prefigures La Dolce Vita, and with subtlety and ellipsis, expresses as much as Fellini's orgies. All of the picture is intelligent and interesting, but it slants on a literary bias. It seems more a filmed novel than a film. It is expertly done and would be a small jewel for a lesser man, but it lacks most of what Antonioni has since learned to do by film means alone. It has his subject matter and some of his complexities of spirit but not much of his subsequent style.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann