Blu-ray Review: The Comfort of Strangers | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, October 25th, 2020  

The Comfort of Strangers

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Sep 01, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

When in Venice, if a man in a white Armani suit extends an invitation to a bar after midnight, spends 12 uninterrupted minutes describing his father’s mustache, his cruel sisters, and his lifelong insecurities, politely chug the glass of wine and escape.

The man may have some unresolved issues.

In The Comfort of Strangers, the man in the white Armani suit is Robert (Christopher Walken). A British couple, Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), have accepted his invitation, and listen politely to his biographic monologue at the bar.

His oration interrupts their rocky attempt at rediscovering romance in the Italian city. They have spent the trip’s first days willfully miscommunicating, deflecting each other’s questions and generally subjecting the blue canals and burnt-orange piazzas to the desultory misery of whatever ailed their relationship back home.

Their chance encounter with Robert is initially intriguing but quietly unsettling: he is urbane, welcoming, debonair and possibly too generous. It’s also a chance to break the miserable rhythm of the trip.

The next day, Robert again appears from seeming thin air, interrupting their hangover coffee with an invitation to his home, which he shares with his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). Against their suspicions that their meeting was not a coincidence at all, they accept. After the couple awakes from a nap in the nude, Caroline confesses to Mary that not only did she watched them sleep, but that she is taken by Colin’s good looks.

The mind games have begun.

The Comfort of Strangers is a deliberately opaque film. In his adaptation of the novel by Ian McEwan, famed writer Harold Pinter snipped any tissue connecting plot mechanics. Actions occur, but the psychological reasons or logical explanations for them are elliptic.

As director Paul Schrader says in one of several interviews included in the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, McEwan’s straight-forward novel took the position that men and women are fundamentally incompatible. But Pinter’s screenplay reuses the same general story to make a more interesting point—people use language purposefully as a tool not to communicate.

Characters in the film rarely answer questions directly; or, if they do, the answer may come in a different scene altogether. The actors handle the material gamely, naturally delivering Pinter’s writerly dialogue. Mary may not know what Colin really feels, and Colin may not know what Robert has planned, and the audience often does not, either. But the performances sell the fact that the characters are fully driven by their own obscured motivations. Some audiences may find the lack of clear answers anticlimactic; others may enjoy the ambiguity and haze of mystery.

Like the characters on screen, even with our best attempts at empathy and understanding, the motivations of others are often opaque, or just baffling, especially if they run counter to our own goals or impressions. Willful misunderstandings can arise as easily as honest misunderstandings. Language, at its best, can bridge this gap, but being as full of pride and privacy and duplicity as people often are, it can just as often be used as a cudgel or a magician’s sleight.

Physical beauty can further pull the wool. Robert and Caroline cannot resist the temptation of Colin and Mary’s good looks. Colin and Mary are pulled toward the older couple’s remarkable and ornate apartment, a decedent palazzo with patterned tiles and lush pillows, expansive views and generally incredible affluence.

The fantastic apartment is the crown jewel of Schrader’s original vision of Venice, which he reimagines by focusing on the city’s Moorish architecture rather than the Gothic and Renaissance motifs than could quickly spiral into Venetian cliché. The Comfort of Strangers may be Schrader’s best-looking film—spectacularly edited and lit—lavish production designs entice the audience to enter the erotic and subtly horrific atmosphere. The film rejects categorization and recalls the high-and-low agreement of formal craft and genre sleaze that characterizes Brian De Palma’s best work. It’s the kind of film you want to re-watch immediately—supple and mystifying, withholding more than it gives away, as if tilting your head might reveal a crack in the veneer or a peak behind the curtain. 

Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @edmcmenamin



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