Tuesday, July 05, 2022


Madame Irma (Shelley Winters) runs a brothel in what looks like an abandoned warehouse in an unnamed country where violent revolution is occurring in the streets, led by a legendary figure known as Roger (Leonard Nimoy) who may in fact actually be dead. The fantasies that her girls enact for their customers are elaborate. We see three such scenarios play out: one man dresses as a soldier and rides one of the women like a horse; another pretends to be a judge as a woman sits in a mock-up of an electric chair; and a third dresses as a bishop and listens to an erotic confession. Winters and her assistant, a former prostitute (Lee Grant), watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit TV. The chief of police (Peter Falk), trying to hold the government together, comes to Winters, who has been his lover, and asks her to provide people to play dignitaries (all killed in the revolt) in public to keep up the illusion of the government's power and stability. The three johns agree to play general, judge, and archbishop and ride around town in an open car, with Irma eventually decked out as a queen, and begin to act as though they actually hold power. Then a very-much-alive Roger shows up at the brothel and wants to playact as the police chief. 

Jean Genet's play was well received off-Broadway in 1960, and this movie looks and feels very much like a filmed stage play. The scenes that are set outside of the brothel consist mostly of stock footage of riots and ruins, which was a problem for me because when the three men are paraded through town, the scene looks so artificial, I first thought it was taking place in the brothel. This could have been deliberate, as much of the film's philosophical content involves the contrasting states of reality and illusion. Frankly, this can only be fruitfully discussed as a filmed play, and as such, it's compelling enough, though the situations and characters always feel theatrical and symbolic, with no real flesh and blood consequences. Matching this, the actors, for the most part, play their roles theatrically. They are all fine, especially Falk, who threatens to go over the top on occasion. Kent Smith (from the original CAT PEOPLE) is the soldier, and Ruby Dee has a small role as the bishop's penitent. A scene near the end of Falk and Nimoy, both having been stripped naked, is about as amusing as the movie ever gets. For fans of Genet or filmed theater. Pictured are Falk and Winters. [Criterion Channel]

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