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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Comfort of Strangers" (Schrader, 1990)

Looking at The Comfort of Strangers nearly 20 years after its release, and shortly after the death of its screenwriter Harold Pinter, one is, first off, inclined to rue the fact that Pinter and director Paul Schrader only worked together the one time. Pinter's text, an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel—the text of which itself suggests a Hammer film as reimagined by...Harold Pinter—seems to focus Schrader beautifully, staying him from indulging the too-baroque flourishes that sometimes marred his directorial work up until this point. Instead Schrader imbues the proceedings with a brisk intensity and an atmosphere of queasiness not so fully achieved in any Pinter-scripted films since The Servant and Accident, Pinter's first two collaborations with Joseph Losey.
The film's protagonists, Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson), are a couple who are disconnected and alienated and uncommunicative in a way that's endemic to couples in both McEwan and Pinter. A twist here is that it's the exquisite Colin who is the object of desire, in spite of Mary's obvious attractiveness. (Schrader has noted that, after having simulated living in a closet for his picture Patty Hearst, Richardson was happy to work with him in a part that had her gorgeous and tanned and dressed in Armani in glamourous settings. And for all that she's still something of a second banana here.) It's not just Colin's beautifully sculpted face and body—it's his seen-it-all-before-and-was-utterly-bored-with-it-then bearing, which tends to make Mary seem like a deer in headlights even when she's only being alert, as we note of the screen grab above. They're doomed, of course—we know that merely by dint of the fact that they've gone to Venice to revive their foundering relationship.
And revive it does, after a couple of peculiar encounters with the dapper, eccentrically-accented Robert (Christopher Walken), who, unbenownst to the couple, has been photographing them since they've arrived. Robert, who claims to have been born in Venice and educated in London, owns a bar—and whether it's a gay bar or not is a question virtuosically left unanswered by Schrader in a sequence that walks the knife-edge of sexual menace without getting tripped up by the schizoid homophobia the director let loose in American Gigolo—in which he regales the couple with tales of his twisted father, after "rescuing" them from the labyrinths of Venice after dark. Meeting Robert and his seemingly daffy Canadian wife Caroline (Helen Mirren at her most mordantly comic) puts an erotic charge back into the couple. To show their gratitude—or, more likely, to get another fix of what got them off—Colin and Mary decide to pay Robert and Caroline one more visit before returning to England
It is kind of funny, when you think about it, how Comfort adheres to so many of the commonplaces of the conventional horror picture, right up to the point where the audience is supposed to say, "Look, you idiots, you managed to get away last time, but if you go back in there now, it's all over." Schrader and Pinter, while not quite genre artists, do know their genre stuff, which of course includes knowing when and when not to wink, and also when to lay down the ace one has up one's sleeve. This film's ace is Walken. His industriously busy performance was met with some confusion at the time of the film's release, mostly by silly people getting up in arms about how no real Venetian talks like that, etc. Well of course Robert is a construct—when I interviewed him a few years back, Walken happily described how he stitched the guy together. Watching the work now, undistracted by the din of those who demand an authenticity that's chimerical to begin with, one can appreciate Walken's creation of an indelible movie monster, as brain-searing a mutant as fellow New York actor Willem DaFoe's Bobby Peru in Lynch's Wild at Heart, released the same year as Comfort.
Comfort was released in a Region 1 edition by Madacy about five years ago; these days, the best version in print is the British MGM Region 2 edition, which looks very nice overall; still, as I luxuriated in the lushness of the picture's images—courtesy of, besides Schrader, production designer Gianni Quaranta, art director Luigi Marchione, the aforementioned Armani, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti—I couldn't help but wish for a Blu-ray rendering of the film. Given how utterly passive U.S. MGM is about any title in its catalog more obscure than a James Bond picture, I'm inclined to doubt that even the grandchildren I could possibly have will ever see such a thing.
What a fantastic Pinter (and Schrader) movie to revisit. The fact that it was based on a McEwan novel notwithstanding (I’m honestly not familiar with the novel enough to have an opinion), I find that the film seems to have been extremely influenced by Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” not just in terms of its setting. There is the horrific climax, as well as the thick atmosphere of dread and inevitability that hangs over the film.
Yes, it’d make a great “see Venice and die” double-bill with the Roeg. The Marienbad borrowings at the start are a little obvious, maybe, but otherwise it’s great that Schrader follows the material and doesn’t impose bits of Bresson and the like, as is his usual wont. There’s the nod to Cocteau’s glazier from Orphee, and that shot over on Glenn’s blog, which I think maybe derives vaguely from Performance, making for another Roeg link…

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