wed 21/11/2018

DVD/Blu-ray: The Comfort of Strangers | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The Comfort of Strangers

DVD/Blu-ray: The Comfort of Strangers

Paul Schrader channels Pinter and McEwan in mesmeric tale of Venetian macabre

Parade of desire: from left, Helen Mirren, Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson

“There’s a lot of weirdness I didn’t want explained,” Paul Schrader reveals at one point in a new director’s commentary to his 1990 film. He certainly succeeded on that score: with its script by Harold Pinter (adapting Ian McEwan’s elliptical 1981 novel), you sense that explanation – in any standard sense, at least – was indeed never going to be much of an issue in The Comfort of Strangers.

If the novelist had offered little dialogue in his investigation of the irreconcilability of the sexes, and the playwright riffed on his favourite theme, that “language is a tool we use not to communicate”, words were never going to be the main thing either, which left Schrader to work unforgettably with images, aided by the celebrated Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti. With an old-fashioned visual luxuriance in its depiction of Venice, The Comfort of Strangers surely has the shadow of Visconti looming over it, and not only for its shared location with the latter’s Death in Venice.

Rarely can Venetian locations have looked so deserted

If that’s a resemblance that seems principally stylistic, there’s an inevitable thematic hark-back to Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 Don’t Look Now, with both films exploring the fate of a British couple who come to Venice to reassess a relationship: in The Comfort of Strangers that’s Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), pondering on their future commitments. Behind the façade of the city’s beauty – rarely can Venetian locations have looked so deserted, a single Piazza San Marco crowd scene here the exception – an underlying sense of threat becomes palpable.

It reveals itself in the night wandering – the “de rigeur ‘lost in Venice scene’,” Schrader terms it – that first brings the couple into the company of the mysterious Robert (Christopher Walken, pictured below, doing the film's official costumer, Armani, proud), who entertains them in a louche-looking café. The naive foreigners don’t sense the location’s pronounced gay feel, but Spinotti’s roving camera, tracking over the interior as Walken delivers a ten-minute monologue, revels in its after-hours eccentricity.The Comfort of StrangersThe monologue is a classic Pinter text – “My father was a very big man. All his life he wore a black moustache…” – that catches the writer’s overlapping concerns of private and public tyranny. (This BFI release is a loose continuation of its recent Pinter on Screen: Power, Sex & Politics season.) Its significance is endorsed by the fact that we have heard it already, as the opening voice-over accompanying another elaborate tracking shot that explores the historic Grand Canal palazzo apartment that Robert shares with his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren, in surely one of her stranger roles).

The attractions of history work in strange, almost Jamesian ways here. That location may become the epicentre of the macabre perversion with which The Comfort of Strangers memorably concludes, but it has also by then given the young lovers a new infusion of passion, a presentiment of the inexorable fascination that will somehow draw them back. Reflected equally in Angelo Badalamenti’s score, Schrader consciously presented a vision of Venice that is almost Moorish, a feeling caught particularly in the elaborate loggia that is Caroline’s element (for all the sense of Venetian magic it conveys, the apartment was in fact created on a Rome studio set).

The Comfort of StrangersSchrader delivers a culmination of high, screwball gothic, which brings to a distinctly camp conclusion what he has brilliantly described as the film's “murky sexual bouillabaisse” of emotions. On the subject of camp, the commentary has a nice detail on how Schrader and Everett (who had declined the role when offered it by John Schlesinger, an earlier prospect for director) adopted a “pink petticoat” code to avoid the actor delivering too obviously gay a performance. We can only wonder how the pairing would have worked if it had been Al Pacino, an early candidate for the role of Robert, instead of the somewhat sepulchral Walken.

This BFI dual-format release has an exquisite Secession-style cover (pictured above right) – indirect homage to Criterion, perhaps? – with two long audio-only pieces as its main extras. In his 85-minute 1993 Guardian interview with Derek Malcolm, Schrader is fascinating about moving between directing for the studios (American Gigolo) and the independent production world (Mishima, which sounds like a bizarre experience indeed), as well as his script collaborations with Scorsese (he sees Taxi Driver as his film: Raging Bull belongs most of all to Bob, Last Temptation to Marty). From a decade earlier, his American university masterclass Prospectus for a Course Not Given muses particularly on the screenwriter’s craft. Schrader’s audio commentary to The Comfort of Strangers, newly recorded for this release, is an anecdotal delight.

Schrader delivers a culmination of high, screwball gothic, which brings to a distinctly camp conclusion what he has brilliantly described as the film's 'murky sexual bouillabaisse' of emotions

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters