The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

reviewed by
Wayne Citrin

                          THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS
                       A film review by Wayne Citrin
                        Copyright 1991 Wayne Citrin

THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS is a new film by Paul Schraeder (dir. PATTY HEARST, screenwriter TAXI DRIVER, among others). Schraeder's films are usually descents into a world where the viewer's moral and social assumptions are constantly called into question. They're explorations of the nature of hell.

THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS unfolds similarly. A nice young English couple (Natasha Richardson and an English actor whose name I can't recall who plays her boyfriend), visit a decadent Venice, trying to determine the future course of their relationship. They've been seeing each other for a number of years, and she wants to get married; he's not sure. One evening, lost while looking for a late-night meal, they encounter Robert (Christopher Walken), a very refined upper-class Italian gentleman, the son of a diplomat. Robert is somewhat slimy, but the couple is hungry, it's late, and the force of Robert's personality is such that they have no choice but to follow him to a local bar where Robert spends most of the time talking about himself. This not-so-pleasant evening ends, but the English couple is not yet through with Robert or his Canadian wife (Helen Mirren). The older couple has plans for them, and you just know if's going to end badly for somebody, but there seems to be no choice for the English couple (a common problem for Schraeder protagonists).

The problem with the story is that the entanglement of the English couple with Robert and his wife doesn't seem so much predetermined or inevitable as forced on them by the filmmaker. There seem to be plenty of opportunities to distance themselves from the unpleasant Robert (even for such a determinedly "nice" and polite couple as the English). When Travis Bickle shoots up the whorehouse in TAXI DRIVER, you just know it had to happen; everything led up to that point. Here, however, we have more questions than answers. Why doesn't the young couple avoid Robert? Why does their contact with Robert supercharge their lovemaking? Why does Robert hold the views and tastes that he does, and why does his wife help him? I felt unsatisfied at the end.

Some of the fault must lie with Harold Pinter, the screenwriter, who adapted the screenplay from a novel, although someone with as strong screenwriting talent as Schraeder must be held responsible, too. The production itself is fine. Schraeder films Venice in beautiful, rich colors (most of the outside scenes take place in the evening or at twilight), and Venice looks entirely and appropriately menacing, an accomplice in what follows. The English couple is inoffensive but sympathetic, Walken is loathsome in a way that's hard to put one's finger on (but it's very well done), and Mirren is good as his wife, with her own menace, but her part is less weighty than it might have been. If the screenplay were more motivated, I could recommend this film, as it is, it seemed overlong and was disappointing.

Two-and-a-half stars (out of four).
Wayne Citrin

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