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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoiler Alert Watching the beginning of "The Comfort of Strangers" I
become aware of three things: the camera oozing through a grand
Venetian apartment clearly lost in time, Angelo Badalamenti's haunting
score teasing with classical elegance only to cut to a darker tone and
Christopher Walken's voice. The voice is calm, hypnotic and (much like
Badalamenti's score) carries an uneasy note - or rather a note that
makes one feel uneasy. It's a voice that is only part of one of
Christopher Walken's greatest performances, in a film which he, not
I do not, however, wish to be caught suggesting that without Walken "The Comfort of Strangers" would be a bad film. It wouldn't (most likely, but that's speculation) - it's got more than Walken going for it. Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett play a young British couple well (not that it is hard to do, I suppose, at least until) when their darker side emerges. The stimulation and prodding of this darkness from its hole and home of politeness and comfort occurs not only as a consequence of the couple's encounter with Walken, but also by his wife, played by Helen Mirren, who I love in this role.
"The Comfort of Strangers" is not a European-like art film, or subtle drama as much as it is a horror, or rather, horror plain and simple. Its story is relatively simple: a young British couple on vacation contemplate their relationship and the possibility of marriage when they encounter a Venetian resident (Walken) who seduces them with disturbing tales of his past, while terrifying them as well.
Shortly into the film, however, it turns out that Walken's encounter with Richardson and Everett's characters wasn't so chance after all. This should hardly be considered surprising since the film is directed by Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Last Temptation of Christ") and adapted by Harold Pinter ("The Go-Between," "The Servant"). Both writer and director obsess over psychology and the darker side of humanity. Well, in "The Comfort of Strangers" this obsession also reveals itself.
The dialogues in the film are classic Pinter - innocuous at first sight, matter-of-fact, meaningless on the surface, they add up to much more than they do in isolation. The story operates on subtext and nuance. It invites interpretations like many of Pinter's plays (most notably "The Caretaker), primarily social and psychological. And the film has countless - its ending may be considered sporadic, extreme, or, contrarily, pertinent and perfect.
I loved the ending and the film feeling that it works with the horror of the whole. My interpretation of "The Comfort of Strangers" puts aside psychology (I prefer to leave psychology ambiguous - darker things lurk in corners of the unknown than the explained). "The Comfort of Strangers" is, to some degree, an allegory, much like Losey's "The Servant" about two generations clashing with each other. More specifically, it's about old and new upper-class clashing. Walken is haunted by his father, a man of an older order, a patriarch with full knowledge of the value of his power, both psychological and physical, the terrorist of the family, an authoritarian. A symbol of virility. His gift to Walken's Robert is made clear through the relationship with Robert's wife - it's a violent, sexual relationship, the woman is a victim who comes to peace with her fate. It's an old-fashioned relationship, a relationship that terrifies Richardson and Everett.
They are a modern couple by modern standards - Richardson's Mary has children from a previous marriage and lives with Everett's Colin outside of wedlock. They are, to some extent, free. Robert criticizes them for this several times implicitly - he states that he respects Colin as an Englishman, but subtly berates him for living with a divorced woman. And he berates Colin not so subtly when Colin criticizes Robert's collection of his father's things.
Colin doesn't tell Mary that Robert hit him hard in the stomach. In fact, their relationship is jostled by their encounters with the strange Venetian couple, sexually energized - Mary, who initially wants Colin to propose to her, feels more powerful, free and desirous of that freedom she tastes. When Colin, shrinking (after the violent encounter with Robert), proposes to her finally, she brushes it off with a smile - she feels free and she likes it. Colin, however, is threatened by it. He doesn't fight back against Robert - he takes it and is quiet about it. He even allows Robert to call him a "poof, or how you say, a fruit?" during dinner.
The strong patriarchy of the past, manifested by Walken's Robert, isn't as strong as it appears at first. It has no future - the sickness of it is apparent to any viewer, especially as revealed by the Mirren character. It's a diseased relationship, yet it attracts Mary and Colin. Their relationship is also doomed, however - it appears to have no future, because it cannot define itself. There is no dominant figure, no person to give a direction to it (marriage?) - and when a direction presents itself, neither of the partners appears very committed to it. It's far from normal either - otherwise there would have only been one encounter with the Venetian couple. But interest and curiosity are far too strong for the encounters to stop.
So, when I watch the final moment of the film - very reminiscent of its first - I think not only of Walken's brilliance, but now of the newly-bestowed meaning to his monologue. Whenever Robert is questioned by a character in the film he offers a tale of childhood, of the past, about his father, who bestowed him with psychology, values and an understanding of the world. The understanding, of course, is impractical and must, inevitably, cause Robert a great deal of pain - every time he is forced to face the present, he has to revert to a past which he understands (and only because it made an incredibly psychological impression on him and his growth, development), but makes sense to no one else. He invokes the spirit of his dead father. And the spirit does not return the call because it is itself dead and gone - along with Robert, who is not in our world, but a world past. He is a ghost and he is truly horrifying, especially when he tries to materialize.
Let's think how to put together the all-star team of menace.
We'd have Paul Shrader direct, and he'd never shoot a centered, straight-on angle. The movie would be filled with nearly empty frames, where the actors can be seen only far off to the side, and the scenes would begin with tracking shots through an alley to the characters, as if from a stalker's P.O.V. Doors and windows would open and close near our protagonists, manipulated by unseen hands, for unspoken reasons.
We'd have Harold Pinter write the screenplay, and every line would be pregnant with vague menace. The character's actions would be filled with unexplainable and unexplained malice. People would repeat with gravitas lines that don't seem important. People would tell awful stories about their youth and their excessively stern parents.
We'd locate it in Venice at night, where every corner seems to turn into a deserted and foggy dead end, every street is a waterfront, and there are as many ghosts and echoes as living people.
We'd star Christopher Walken.
Sorry, guys, it's already been done. This is a spooky, creepy movie, well presented by the all-star team. I really found only one flaw. The menace was not left unspoken and threatening. The movie ends with people doing explicit and unspeakably awful things for no reason.
It's one strange movie. Great use of Venice as the backdrop for the story. It is a masterpiece in its own Euro-noir genre. I liked it a lot, but don't expect a typical cinema experience, or a happy ending.
This Paul Shrader movie is a 'must see' for anyone who's enjoyed 'Don't
now' by Nicholas Roeg. Once again we're back in Venice where decadence,
decay and danger seem to lurk in every ill-lit corner. Just barely hiding
from our eyes, but omni-present in the atmosphere.
We see Colin and Mary, a not-so-young and not-so-happy couple that have come back to Venice to decide whether or not to continue their relationship. The only plausible question to that answer seems to be a sound NO, until they meet Robert and Helen, an older couple living in a palazzo at the Grand Canal. Robert and Helen are weird, to say the least. Their marriage being a perverted mixture of violence and lust. Robert (Christopher Walken) could be a character from a James Purdy novel: a closeted mucho macho gay man who can only satisfy his need to be physically close to another man through violence. Masochistic Helen is not at all the victim she seems to be.
But who are the real perverts here? The clearly kinky older couple or their younger 'friends', that can't seem to stop having sex after their unsettling encounters? No need to tell that there can be no happy ending to this tale.
The Comfort of Strangers is a work of art. The chilling atmosphere is tangible, the characters are very convincing, the dialogue by Harold Pinter is multi-layered and the plot is slowly moving to its inevitable conclusion without the interference of a weak-hearted writer.
It makes you think about the million different methods people use to keep their lovelives alive. The movie also is a very brutal way of saying that nothing in life comes for free. By exaggerating the price Colin and Mary have to pay, Shrader seems to make us want to think about the more ordinary prices we pay in matters of fidelity, lust and love.
This is an interesting but ultimately fairly nasty film made from a
story by Ian McEwan who some years ago wrote "The Ploughman's Lunch".
an effective and pitiless story of Thatcher's Britain. This time
McEwan's story is set in an unnamed city but director Paul Schrader,
famous as the writer of the 1976 New York horror film "Taxi Driver",
has set the "Comfort of Strangers" in Venice, to very good effect.
Grandeur, decay, and corruption haunt every frame and what might seem
highly implausible in Hampstead becomes almost natural on the shores of
Our protagonists Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) are a youngish unmarried English couple who are revisiting Venice on holiday. In reality, they are trying to decide what to do about their relationship. She is divorced, with two small children. He loves her, he says, but has doubts about marriage and living together. Late at night while in search of somewhere to eat, they meet, apparently by chance, the elegant and charming Robert (Christopher Walken). He takes them to a bar and entertains them with stories from his past. Next morning he bumps into them again as they are having coffee in Pizza San Marco. He affects remorse at having left them to find their own way home the previous night (they got lost and spent the night by a canal) and invites them back to his apartment for a nap and dinner. Robert lives in a truly grand, if museum-like, apartment on the Grand Canal with his Canadian wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). By now it has become apparent that there is something a bit odd about both Robert and his wife. When (in the absence of the ladies) Colin rather tactlessly remarks on the museum-like atmosphere of the apartment Robert delivers him a sharp blow to his solar plexus. Helen confesses to having spent half an hour watching Colin and Mary sleeping and talks about the connection between pain and sexual pleasure. However, dinner passes off pleasantly enough and they return to their hotel.
Colin and Mary continue their holiday and find their interest in each other rekindled. In fact they seem to be constantly making love, or wanting to. It looks as if they will marry after all. Then, while they are passing near Robert's apartment, Caroline spots them from her balcony and invites them in. Matters soon become decidedly unpleasant.
If this is a moral tale, I'm not sure what the moral is. Watch out for twitchy foreigners wearing linen Armani suits when on holiday abroad? If it is a study in sexual decadence there's no explanation as to why the characters are the way they are (though Robert's diplomat father, he of the mascara moustache, sounds like a real bully). Well, I didn't really get the point of "Taxi Driver" either, except that it indicated the NY taxi licensing people needed to do something about the Travis Bickles in their fleet. Are we supposed to start enjoying it when nasty things start happening to our protagonists, who, while not particularly likable, do not seem to deserve their fate either?
The Venetian atmosphere was well evoked and I enjoyed all the main performances, though Christopher Walken was just a bit too twitchy - too obviously odd - at times. Rupert Everett struck just the right note of supercilious self-absorption required for Colin (is every male in English publishing an upper-class prat?) Helen Mirren as Caroline managed to convince us that an apparently gentle person can harbour some pretty violent desires. Natasha Richardson also struck the right note as the attractive, slightly fuzzy-minded but decent Mary.
"The Comfort of Strangers" sounds superb on paper. Ian McEwan's
brilliantly devastating and profoundly disturbing novella adapted by
the genius that is Harold Pinter, directed by the excellent Paul
Schrader, scored by Angelo Badalamenti, and starring what is
essentially a dream cast absolutely perfect for the material. Yet it
has a mediocre reputation at best so when I settled down for the
viewing I was hopeful but had low expectations.
Pinter and Schrader handled two things poorly here- the ending, and the introduction of Christopher Walken's character, Robert. I'm not usually too concerned with faithfulness to the source material but what McEwan did with both aspects in the novella definitely did not require any sort of alteration. McEwan plays with the comfort level of the audience and characters more than Pinter does, causing the story to be even more sinister and disturbing as it develops. Pinter begins the film with a voice-over narration by Robert and we see Robert in flashes well before meets Colin and Mary and takes them to his bar. In short, we are told explicitly that Robert is a villain from the opening of the film, and Pinter also lets him take a bit too much screen time away from Colin and Mary. Walken is excellent in the role, however. The ending, while disturbing and unforgettable in the novella, is a predictable and simple conclusion on film. There's also one or two things that happened during the climactic scene that don't make sense at all within the narrative of the film and which did make sense in McEwan's book. Another questionable alteration.
Other than those faults "The Comfort of Strangers" is an absolutely tremendous and amazingly involving film with a brilliant script by Pinter which allows for more nuanced characters and a different approach than McEwan's novella featured, and superb work by Paul Schrader as director, who uses Venice brilliantly her to create mood and ambiance and certainly shoots the film very, very well, with one scene, where Robert is discussing his relationship with his father and sisters with Colin and Mary in the bar which is shot stunningly well. I won't give away Schrader's use of imagery here but it is such a well-crafted scene that the version in my head of the scene seemed terrible in comparison. The film is also shot exceptionally well by Dante Spinotti, a quality cinematographer famed for his work on films like "Heat" and "L.A. Confidential" among others.
Complimenting Schrader's work, which is probably his most impressive outside "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters", and at times superior to that, is one of Angelo Badalamenti's most memorable and distinctive scores. I actually had Rupert Everett in mind for Colin well before I even knew this film existed and he didn't disappoint at all in the role. Natasha Richardson was out of left field for me but the casting worked spectacularly well here, and it goes without saying that Helen Mirren is superb as Robert's wife Caroline. Mirren's Canadian accent is spot-on as well.
"The Comfort of Strangers" is significantly less heady than its prose version, choosing to function as a thriller with some thematic preoccupations instead. What is surprising about this film is just how well it works as a thriller. The novella thrives on an atmosphere of tense, sinister unease but much of that is derived from Colin and Mary's relationship rather than any plot mechanics. This film is more a traditional thriller but it is tremendously tense, involving, and exciting from start to finish. A quality film, one of Schrader's best as director and some of Pinter's finest film work.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When does a simple vacation become an erotic odyssey? That is the
question the trailer for this film asks. You can just see some
copywriter somewhere coming up with that one. Nevertheless, it is a
question I have often asked myself. I can't tell you how many times I
thought I was on a simple vacation, and wouldn't you know, it turned
out to be an erotic odyssey. But more often than not, there I am,
thinking I'm on an erotic odyssey, and it turns out to be just a simple
vacation. You know, you really never can tell.
Okay, I'll stop ragging on the copywriting in the trailer now. How for the movie itself? It's a very good, unsettling tale of perverted sexuality and latent homoeroticism that unfolds at a leisurely pace in Venice. This movie is a sort of bookend movie to Don't Look Now, so much so that I strongly suspect that the Ian McEwan novel was at least partially inspired by the Daphne DuMaurier novel (as well as, it must be acknowledged, Death in Venice). They both include a couple with a shaky relationship in Venice, several scenes of getting lost in the winding streets, the intrusion of a mysterious and disruptive stranger, and similarly surprising endings.
Rupert Everett plays Colin, in a strained relationship with Natasha Richardson's Mary. They are on vacation in Venice, where they had vacationed two years previously, in the hopes of sorting out whether or not they want to continue with their relationship. Mary has two kids from a prior marriage that Colin does not seem particularly fond of, and he seems to regard her as insipid and whiny-which she pretty much is. When she remarks that she thought some paintings they saw were incredible, he dismissively remarks: "That's what you thought last time." Can this union be saved? Add to this a lopsided sexual tension throughout. They are constantly talking about how beautiful Colin is, and whether he is more beautiful than Mary. They discuss whether the people they see are looking at Mary or Colin. The film itself fetishizes Colin, offering long, loving shots of him nude or shirtless, which, as it turns out, serves the story. While Colin is in no way portrayed as gay, it is obvious that he can't summon up any interest in Mary, and certainly doesn't seem to care much for her kids. But there is a homoerotic tone just in the way the camera lingers over him and the way his beauty is a recurring topic of interest.
The couple get lost late one night, and run into Christopher Walken as Robert, who invites them to a bar that it turns out he owns. The bar seems to be populated entirely by men who seem pretty gay to me, although later two shots are inserted that show women. Later Robert tells two other guys who are interested in Colin that Colin is his lover. At the bar Robert gets them drunk and tells them a long and disturbing story about his imperious and dominating father. They get the creeps from him, but can't avoid seeing him again the next day, and being invited to his house, where they meet his wife Caroline, played by Helen Mirren.
Colin and Mary sleep, and wake to find that their clothes have been taken. Caroline tells them, and makes Mary repeat to Colin because it's so important, that she came into their room and watched them for a half hour while they slept. She waxes on and on about Colin's beauty. The whole thing is getting creepy fast, and gets more so when Robert suddenly punches Colin in the stomach after he indirectly insults Robert for being obsessed with his father.
It continues to get creepier and creepier, and I wouldn't dare spoil the surprising ending for you, but suffice to say that the film's point of view isn't the only one with a homoerotic obsession with Colin and his beauty.
The movie opens with a wonderful credits sequence as the camera languidly floats through Robert and Caroline's apartment to the languid strains of one of Angelo Badalamenti's most beautiful scores. I saw this movie when it came out 15 years ago, and one of the things I never forgot is this credits sequence and the wonderful score. As usual for a Paul Schrader film, the whole thing moves a bit too slowly for my taste, but at least there's a story here to tell, and the screenplay by Harold Pinter does a great job of capturing the disjointed nature of real conversation.
It's hard to tell much more of the story without talking about the ending, a problem the trailer has, which it solves by pretty much showing the entire story from beginning to end, while delivering idiotic commentary such as the aforementioned question regarding simple vacations vs. erotic odysseys. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating, disturbing film with great performances from Walken and Mirren, and if you liked Don't Look Now, you should definitely look into it.
This is the second Harold Pinter film I have seen during the Harold Pinter film festival being held at Lincoln Center in New York. I think his adaptations are great. Paul Schrader's direction in this movie was wonderful. The long shots and thoughtful portrayal of the surroundings added immensely to the overall beauty and cleverness of the film. You need to be able to get a sense of the place where the movie takes place. I believe Schrader captured Venice perfectly. When I traveled in Italy, the only place I ever felt uneasy was walking through Venice at night. Walken is a genius, regardless of what people say about him. He has the same stage presence as a Brando, Dean or Steiger. He embodies his character. I would recommend anyone to see this film and am encouraging my 30 yr old son who is an aspiring actor to see it and learn from the masters!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A quintessnetial Christopher Walken movie. A bizarre tale and exploration
sado-masachistic trap to the extreme, where the struggle for control and
power leads to the sadist's worst nightmare, the death of the subject, and
thus, the loss of empowerment. Multi dimensional in its psychological
exploration of the dark and animalistic this movie is entertaining as
Christopher Walken has never been more Christopher Walken in any other movie than this.
I cannot say if it's weird in a good or bad way, because the movie
carried me from suspense-weird through curious-weird and finally
scabrous-weird, leaving me with a weird sensation in my stomach.
Apparently there is no other reason except insanity that drives Robert(Walken at his best) to do the things that he does. He's a psychopath.
In a way there are two angles to this:
1.The young naive American couple(brilliantly played by both Everett and Richardson) that travels to a strange place(Venice), a world that incites them to discover and finally to submit to a strange sensation of lust.
and 2.The close character study of a charismatic psychopath(Walken), whom the couple cannot resist, despite early warning that he may be dangerous.
Personally I believe the movie has no clear message, but in turn shows what lust of any kind can lead to and goes all the way in doing this. The "mascara" bit still haunts me.
The best way to approach Paul Schrader's stylish but unsettling new film is without any knowledge of the (admittedly slim) plot, involving two innocents abroad and their fateful encounter in decadent Venice with a local couple whose Old World manners hide a malignant obsession. This isn't the romantic Venice of many a travel guide, but a dark and ominous maze of Byzantine alleys and dead end streets, and Schrader gives the city a wonderfully rich and gritty sense of after-hours entropy. Harold Pinter's screenplay is likewise (and typically) indirect, but the combination of an incredibly dense and evocative mood with the author's teasing lack of narrative helps to create a feeling of almost unspeakable dread. The film is certainly an acquired taste: perverse and pretentious in the old-fashioned European art house tradition (and, at times, oddly and inappropriately comic), but the effect can be disturbing to viewers caught in the right frame of mind.
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