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Review: Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers on Criterion Blu-ray

It’s a relief to have Schrader’s underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.

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The Comfort of Strangers

The 1990 film The Comfort of Strangers is a unique collaboration of diverse (and quite perverse) talent, as it’s an adaptation of an early Ian McEwan novel that’s been written for the screen by Harold Pinter and directed by Paul Schrader. The sensibilities of these artists mesh quite well here: McEwan’s class concerns have been enlivened by Pinter’s shrewd austerity and sense of humor and concision, which has in turn brought out a surprising playfulness and sensuality in Schrader, who imparts to the film his exacting formalism and distinctive tempo. Call it mournful detachment, with a soupcon of lurid sadism. The filmmaker fashions a tortured art object that’s also a wicked parody of the same.

Pinter and Schrader are loyal to many of the particulars of the novel, though they hollow out the connective tissue between scenes, allowing for more space and ambiguity. Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are on holiday in Venice for reasons that are kept murky for a long stretch of the film, the mystery generating the sort of subterranean hum of tension that’s familiar to Pinter’s work. They speak in curt shards of dialogue that’s often shrouded in innuendo: At one point Mary asks Colin if he likes children, specifically her children, which she then modifies again to refer to children in general. Later in an outdoor restaurant, Mary tells Colin a story of childhood rejection that registers subliminally as a plea (for Colin not to reject her) and a lament for not-quite-past pain. Colin’s responses betray the aura of a man who isn’t willing to commit to either commitment or explicit dissolution; he projects a self-protective vanity that drives the audience’s sympathy toward Mary.

This tension—are Colin and Mary friends considering romantic possibilities or lovers on a downward trajectory?—is intensified by external factors. Colin and Mary are young, affluent, and gorgeous, and seem to be trapped in the sort of situation that grips either unconfident wallflowers or people old enough to truly understand what a rut is. There is also the beauty of Venice, which Schrader and cinematographer Dante Spinotti render surreal and dangerous, lingering on labyrinths of tunnels, alleys, and bridges that are shrouded in ripe, hot noir colors, allowing the architecture of the city to dwarf a couple prone to getting lost. Venice is also often strangely underpopulated here, especially at night, suggesting the empty New York City that Kubrick would later conjure in Eyes Wide Shut, or the haunted cityscapes of Dario Argento’s Deep Red. The juxtaposition of Colin and Mary’s crisis with the gorgeous, forbidding alien-ness of Venice allows one to intuit that this couple is opening itself up to danger.

That danger manifests itself in Robert (Christopher Walken), who’s seen at the opening of the film inhabiting a palatial gothic flat—another instance of beauty and menace comingling at a seemingly biochemical level—while pontificating about his father’s bigness and power. Robert will discuss his father and grandfather many times throughout The Comfort of Strangers, mostly with Colin, and these reveries are the most ostentatiously “written” of Pinter’s carefully crafted lines. They’re absurd and vainglorious boasts that Robert seems to rehearse to himself daily, and which increasingly indicate nostalgia for fascism. Robert sees his relatives as men’s men who kept the women in their place during a time when gender roles weren’t complicated by notions of equality. (One assumes they were okay with Mussolini.) Pinter doesn’t spell this ideology out—McEwan was more explicit—and this vagueness imbues Robert with a frightening and amusing sense of unfulfilled violence. And a potential fascist, revealed to be mixed-up sexually between what he wants and what should be of interest to men’s men, is the sort of character that Schrader knows inside and out.

One of the chief pleasures of The Comfort of Strangers is how Robert, a potentially traditionally heavy Schrader obsessive, is played for deadpan, occasionally grotesque yet poignant comedy; the artiness of the writing and staging become evocatively intertwined with Robert’s own pretension. The character makes little literal sense, as he’s supposed to be an Italian by way of England who speaks only in a sporadically Italian-inflected version of Walken’s iconic staccato sing-song style of speaking, a displacement that parallels the filmmakers’ stylization of Venice as a garden of suppressed yearnings and reinventions. He’s very consciously a creation, expertly played by Walken, who serves as a manifestation of comfortable, liberal Colin and Mary’s fears of obsolescence in the wake of Thatcher—an association that’s briefly yet pronouncedly alluded to in a charged dinner sequence.

But The Comfort of Strangers more vividly registers as a psycho-comedy on the divide between sexual appetites and political bromides. Robert’s obnoxious, neurotic braggadocio, and the masochistic submission he encourages in his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), jumpstart Colin and Mary’s relationship. Seeing Mary gazing out at a vista from Robert and Caroline’s flat, clad in a gown, her blond locks shimmering in the sun, Colin is overcome with lust for Mary, and they hole up in their own rented place for days, consummating a sexual frenzy.

These scenes are so beautifully composed they almost serve as punchlines themselves; the bodies so perfectly arranged and lit as to suggest a perfume or lingerie ad. Yet these aren’t the cold and abstract sex scenes of Schrader’s American Gigolo. There’s an element of authentic warmth and eroticism here, complicated by the fact that this union was brokered in part by Robert and Caroline’s perverse and retrograde energy, which Colin and Mary can’t entirely allow themselves to fathom. Schrader isn’t preachy here, allowing himself to be turned on by the decadence of his characters and setting as well as his divine aesthetic.

Robert may be a pig, but he understands that subjugation has a primordial grip on the sex drive of a species that feigns enlightenment while remaining enthralled with alpha/beta dynamics. But the gift Robert gives Colin and Mary has a price, for his taboo-bashing is rooted in a sexual torment that has metastasized into insanity. At the end of The Comfort of Strangers, Pinter and Schrader deviate from the novel to offer an ironic conclusion that’s reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a madman is no more inscrutable than when explaining himself, treating his spectators to an endless ticker tape of self-mythology that comes to suggest a mental labyrinth with no exit. We’re no closer to truly knowing Robert than we are to explicitly charting the emotional, political, classist, sexual currents driving Colin and Mary and Robert and Caroline and probably every other couple real and imagined.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s new 4K master of Paul Schrader’s film boasts a wide and beautiful array of colors and textures. The daylight scenes in Venice boast spectacular clarity and nuance, while the interior and nighttime sequences have a deep and rich sense of color and dimension. Shot by Dante Spinotti, The Comfort of Strangers is a luscious film that practically explodes off of the screen in this transfer. (The many paintings, antiques, and religious icons that are glimpsed in the frames are also rendered with crisp clarity.) The English LPCM 1.0 track is also faultless, with Angelo Badalamenti’s score occupying center stage, its operatic beauty accentuating the film’s playfully doomy stylization.

Extras

This disc includes new interviews with Schrader, Christopher Walken, editor Bill Pankow, and Spinotti. Schrader succinctly describes the film’s mixture of sensibilities, observing that The Comfort of Strangers has three themes: the ultimate incompatibility between men and women, via Ian McEwan; the obfuscation of language, via Harold Pinter; and the danger of beauty, a concern he brought himself as inspired by his work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader also discusses his aspiration to make every shot strong and essential, which is supported by Pankow, who observes that no shot is duplicated, which gives the conversation scenes in particular a tense, jagged, sculptural quality. Meanwhile, Spinotti offers insight on the fashioning of some of the film’s more insinuating, sometimes seemingly unmotivated camera movements, which appear to be shot from the viewpoint of an unidentified interloper. Walken speaks of the challenge of performing Pinter’s austere dialogue, which is complemented by an archive interview with Natasha Richardson from 2001. Rounding out the package is a 1981 interview with McEwan from The South Bank Show, concerning his source novel and his other recent work at the time, trailers, and a liner essay by critic Maitland McDonagh that discusses the film’s erotic beauty, mystery, and examination of gender roles.

Overall

This edition is a little light on the extras, but it’s a relief to have Paul Schrader’s underrated sexual psychodrama outfitted with the ravishing transfer it deserves.

Cast: Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Manfredi Aliquo, David Ford, Daniel Franco, Rossana Caghiari, Fabrizio Castellani, Giancarlo Previati, Antonio Serrano, Mario Cotone Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Harold Pinter Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: August 18, 2020 Buy: Video

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