Ever wonder what it would be like to experience Paul Schrader's most famous creation, Travis Bickle, from the outside, only from the perspective of others just as unhappy and almost as weird, albeit more passably 'normal'? Look no further. Penned by the truly impressive one-two punch of Atonement's Ian McEwan (novel) and Harold Pinter (screenplay), The Comfort of Strangers is a haunting, eerie tale of lurid sexuality and obsession, the fallout of familial trauma, and the noxiously addictive nature thereof to bystanders who may not be as innocent as they seem. It's not always an easy watch (no straightforward romance involving Christopher Walken is likely to be). It's liable to leave a thoroughly unpleasant taste in the viewer's mouth, both from its sordid tale of broken humans, and the inconclusive ambiguities therein. But, like many of its thematic and spiritual filmic siblings (Don't Look Now; Last Tango in Paris), which, admittably, the film falls just short of matching up to, there's gruesome beauty to be seen therein, making it a dark but deceptively compelling watch.
Any audiences familiar with Pinter's writing will recognize how much he treats words as placeholder artifice, with the deeper truth lying behind non-sequiturs, and, especially, what lies unsaid. He excels at doing so here. For a film that, plot- wise, reads as three successive dinner conversations, dialogue is characteristically sparse, and generally more obfuscating than illuminating. Take Walken's recurring monologue: "My father was a very big man. And he wore a black moustache. When he grew older and it grew grey, he coloured it with a pencil. The kind women use. Mascara." Initially, it's used as a non-sequitur, or social stalling, but every time it's reiterated, each individual word is shown to be essentially deliberate, and tiny, nearly imperceptible character beats (monolithic but paradoxical patriarchy, homophobia, and latent, insecure violence) are unspooled, as if picking at a thread to the point of gradually unravelling a sweater.
It's a slow-burning story, and one that certain viewers not as active in inferring subtle character motivations might grow weary of. Regardless, Schrader crafts an atmosphere of supreme decadence and unease, with Dante Spinotti's cameras creeping through the smoky opulence of Venice's back alleys and canals like Nosferatu preparing to pounce on an unsuspecting victim. You almost wish Schrader had pushed things to an even more memorably expressionistic and transcendental level (as someone like Scorsese or Milos Forman might have), but Angelo Badalamenti's exceptional musical score works wonders in sounding classically elegant, yet just subtly discordant enough to make the hairs on the back of the viewer's neck stand up. There's a perennial feeling throughout of a painstakingly laid out trap preparing to be sprung, and the waiting, no matter how much Baroque sightseeing there is to be done, is increasingly agonizing.
The central quartet of cast are the binding agent which consolidate all the film's stylistic flourishes into a monstrous symphony, all perfectly in synch with the film's tone and unconventional emotional arc. Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett are both spectacular as the young English couple travelling (or returning, as we're continually reminded) to Venice to rekindle their passion and contemplate marriage. Both deftly convey the nuances of ennui without overplaying, and, in their mutual, unexpected surge of passion, let slip essential details of far more detailed and grim characters beneath their beautifully disinterested exteriors. Still, the juiciest roles are bequeathed to Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren, and the two live up to the challenge - both are superbly charismatic and unnerving, as well as essentially human, rather than caving to the temptation to inflate their roles into Hannibal Lector human cartoons. Walken's fusion of silky, debonair, laconic charm and demented, inhuman underbelly has never been put to such good use, his every line a purr of concealed lust or threat, while Mirren, pristinely teasing ambiguous notes of either primal fear or psychotic madness beneath her tightly wound housewife exterior, manages to make an equally grating impact with less screen time. There's a theatrical quality to the airtight chemistry the four share, and even as the material fails to come to a climax that properly satisfies after the operatic buildup, they're so riveting you'll be too distracted to sweat the semantics.
A somewhat forgotten gem of skin-crawling European lust, The Comfort of Strangers may not quite stretch to the level of timeless classic, but it lingers on the viewer for days afterwards, like a sticky, shameful hangover. Whether to drink in the sumptuous Venetian scenery or the immaculate performances, Schrader and Pinter's Gothic, fatalistic romance is worth taking in on a muggy, cloudy summer night. As Richardson and Everett are sucked in by Walken and Mirren, like spiders jovially binding guests in their web, taking in The Comfort of Strangers can only end in discomfort, but the proceedings are too sickeningly infatuating to escape.
The Comfort of Strangers
Action / Drama / Thriller
The Comfort of Strangers
Action / Drama / Thriller
An English couple holiday in Venice to sort out their relationship. There is some friction and distance between them, and we also sense they are being watched. One evening, they lose their way looking for a restaurant, and a stranger invites them to accompany him. He plies them with wine and grotesque stories from his childhood. They leave disoriented, physically ill, and morally repelled. But, next day, when the stranger sees them in the piazza, they accept an invitation to his sumptuous flat. After this visit, the pair find the depth to face questions about each other, only to be drawn back into the mysterious and menacing fantasies of the stranger and his mate.
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July 07, 2015 at 10:44 PM