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THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS

      

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s one for those who enjoy bizarre films injected with a bit of crazy, an offbeat multi-international effort starring quirky American actor Christopher Walken and directed by Paul Schrader. I gave it a tepid review nearly 30 years ago when it played in Salt Lake City on the art-house circuit but the Criterion Collection believes in Schrader’s fanbase enough to give it a new Blu-ray release. My review was published in the Deseret News on Aug. 25, 1991.

 

A very strange psychosexual melodrama from director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Harold Pinter, "The Comfort of Strangers" is bizarre and unsettling, yet strangely mesmerizing. Unfortunately, it's also intermittently dull and, in the end, unsatisfying.

 

That has something to do with the distance between the characters and the audience, a gap that is never quite bridged. And although distance is part of what the film is about, it's hard for offish, aimless characters to engender audience sympathy. And that's what we have here.

 

The first third or so of the film chronicles the bland, stuffy relationship of a young English couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett) on vacation in Venice.

 

They aren't married (Richardson has children from an earlier marriage) but have been together for four years. They are in Venice because that's where they spent their first holiday together, when they were passionately in love four years earlier. It's apparent that they still love each other and would like to rekindle their stalled relationship, but neither seems to have the energy.

 

      

 

Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson, 'The Comfort of Strangers' (1991)

 

Meanwhile, as they stroll the streets that line the canals, someone seems to be taking photographs of them, and every now and then a mysterious figure in a white suit appears to be lurking in the background.

 

Eventually, we learn that the man in the white suit is unctuous Christopher Walken, in a role tailor-made for his spooky demeanor and weird line readings. One night when Richardson and Everett are lost in the alleyways, looking for a restaurant, Walken comes out of nowhere to take them into an odd little bar where he relates bizarre stories about his youth and his harsh, old-fashioned, ridiculously strict father.

 

Later, they also meet Walken's physically stiff, overly solicitous wife (Helen Mirren), who seems even crazier than Walken. It's apparent that Walken and Mirren want too desperately to be friends with them, and the obsessive behavior they exhibit is a bit frightening. So Richardson and Everett are wary from the start … yet they also can't help but be fascinated by them in some strange way.

 

And so it is with this movie.

 

      

 

From left, Helen Mirren, Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, 'The Comfort of Strangers' (1991)

 

"The Comfort of Strangers" is at once fascinating and repellant, with a spare storytelling technique that seems more European than American. Nonetheless, it is directed by Paul Schrader, best known for "Cat People," "Hardcore," "American Gigolo" and his scripts for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." And though the basis for the film is a novel by Ian McEwan, the low-key, deliberate screenplay significantly reflects the style of its author, Harold Pinter ("Turtle Diary," "Betrayal," "The Handmaid's Tale").

 

The performances are all excellent, the Venice location photography by Dante Spinotti ("Beaches," "Crimes of the Heart") is stunning and the music, by Angelo Badalamenti ("Twin Peaks"), is most atmospheric.

 

Yet the emptiness of the characters is ultimately reflected in the film's superficiality, and while there is much to savor here in the buildup, the payoff is predictable and disappointing.

 

The R rating is earned by several nude sex scenes, some violence and profanity.