25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 20

To Advantage Dressed

The Balcony. (Academy; 'X' certificate in Lon- don.) A FILM about illusion is almost a piece of self-

portraiture, at least enough to involve all sorts. of aesthetic, if not philosophi- cal, jiggery-pokery. When the illusion is produced in a film studio—I mean when the setting of the film is a studio, with all its stages and illusions about for you to walk into, out of and round, real- looking figures you suddenly realise are flat, trick landscapes and interiors of every sort,. not to mention trick people and even trickier behaviour —then the circularity of intention and result is

enough to make your head spin. At one point in The Balcony a .man finds himself reflected into infinity by the sort of looking-glass room in which everything mirrors everything else forever; and although this may arouse the same sort of infinite bafflement as (say):

The centipede was happy quite Until a toad one day Said: Pray, which leg goes after which....

it is a salutary, exciting sort of bafflement eerily well aroused by one of the wittiest films for ages.

Wit: yes, that quality almost lost in films which since they started talking have been growing steadily more indifferent to the human voice, let alone what it has to say; in the script, by Ben Maddow very loosely basing himself on Genet's play, in what the actors have done with what they

were given, in the supremely intelligent direction, which is suggestive in the literal and not leery sense of the word in that it keeps prodding you into thought, feeling, reaction and laughter; wit that is perhaps more verbal than visual, but that certainly doesn't mean it's a photographed play, for the circularity and trickiness, the sense of walking in and out of illusion and reality and getting the roundness of it all—all this is highly cinematic.

Funny, too: it makes you laugh with a geniality and freshness I find very pleasant after Bond or the Boultings' sort of laughter. Not that this is to say it takes a rosy view of things (Strick, of The Savage Eye, let alone Genet, could hardly be accused of that), but that its laughter is salu- tary, adult (again in the literal and not the leery sense) and decent, instead of snickering, school- boyish and smutty. With the result that it hasn't got past the censor, but that the LCC, and any other local authority that likes to, gives it an 'X' certificate (while Bond gets an 'A'). The fact that it is set in a brothel (done up like a film studio) seems a remarkably inappropriate reason for censorship, especially as it isn't really concerned with sex in itself at all, but ,with the games of fantasy and ritual that people act out, perhaps mostly intensely in a sexual context, but in every- day life as well : the power of illusion, the illusion of power. The milkman who wants to be a general, the gasman who wants to be a bishop, in the right clothes and the right context can take over from dead generals and bishops and get away with it; and it is the girls who dress up as pious widows or brides or horses or finally—Madame Irma her- self—as the Queen the police-chief secretly longs for, who are the other side of the picture, or film- set, or mirror; who know, who can read the looking-glass writing.

As the brothel-keeper, Shelley Winters is dazzlingly good, all sleepy amusement, compe- tence, eternity; with an occasional moment of brisk tenderness you don't know (as why should you?) quite how to take in the game; and her shimmering, ageless looks have never been put to better effect. In fact, the whole cast is extra- ordinarily appropriate and seems to be behaving with the psychological freedom that imaginative direction and this sort of (literal) gamesmanship together at times produce: not improvisation, exactly, but truth out of a sort of careful mockery, a mockery of the varied faces and voice of truth's first cousin twice removed—reality.