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Shelley Winters is the madame of a house where customers play out their erotic fantasies, oblivious to a revolution which is sweeping the country. When her old friend, the chief of police (Peter Falk), asks her to impersonate the missing queen in order to reassure the people and halt the revolution, she offers instead three of her customers to play the general, bishop and chief justice, all of whom have died in the revolution. Written by
The transplanting of Genet's writing to film is odd indeed. It feels strongly allegorical, and it is: it's about a made-up revolution going on in the streets, violent scenes of apocalyptic fighting, where the two opposing forces, the police chief and the leader of the revolution, meet in a brothel where fetishistic sex scenes are enacted. So Genet's play seems at first to be about how sex binds, but it's more a post-modern sort of play, where all is an illusion and we play roles -- in Genet's world, our choices are governed by sex (which the film's comic ending uses to end the conflict through nakedness).
That's all well and good, but the revolutionary aspect doesn't come together too well, because the mocking of people who believe anyone who's presented to them isn't really successful; it's told more than it's dramatized. (Three joes from the brothel who act out their fetish scenes are made to participate in the battle outside as the people they play in the brothel.) The fakeness of the sets (complete with fake horse neighs and jury murmurs for the various acting out of fetish scenes) makes intellectual sense to go along with the fakeness of the rest of it (Winters' closing line is great), but the literal, set-like play, and the lousy stock footage, takes away from the melodrama, I think. It's a little difficult to watch, and the direction isn't very good; the decadence, the threats made by Falk, some of the lines -- it'd work better on the page. But it becomes larger as it goes along, and is successful in an unconventional way.
The strangest moments are the emotional ones, where emotion pierces through the artifice -- which, honestly, is rare, almost limited to the scene where the man licks the prostitute's shoe and she begins to cry, or the one where a prostitute-turned-file-clerk longs to be a prostitute again just for an hour. The most instantly recognizable Genet-like image is the one of Nimoy behind bars, his hairy chest exposed. Nimoy, whose appearance is brief, is very good here; he has the emotion through movement that Falk instead strains for. If Daniel Day-Lewis was doing Columbo in "Gangs of New York," then Falk is doing Bill the Butcher, with his German-Southern accent, mustache, and histrionics.
The three men from the brothel are necessarily flaky -- they seem to be acting in another film. I think the awesome Shelley Winters is the only one who really nails her performance: her recognizable inflection, the effortless "a" pauses in her speech, the svelte hand movements; she's most in tune to what's going on, and she pulls it off beautifully. There's a startling kiss between her and a girl from the brothel that must have been a jolt to audiences at the time; it still seems violent, even though it's done seemingly out of affection. 8/10
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