Paul Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers” is a one-of-a-kind thriller given new life courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
It stars Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett as Mary and Colin, a European couple who take a trip to Venice to get away from her two children and the routine of their relationship. One night, while getting lost as they search for a diner, they encounter Robert (Christopher Walken), a suave Italian who initially helps them but has a manner and confessional way of storytelling they find repelling.
They later find themselves in the company of Robert and his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), whose hospitality is motherly in some ways but troubling in others.
Schrader’s film, which is based on a 1981 Ian McEwan novel and adapted for the screen by the brilliant playwright Harold Pinter, is about how the presence of one couple living in Venice impacts the transient lives of the other. In a way not dissimilar from a Thomas Berger novel (namely “Neighbors” and “Meeting Evil,”), “The Comfort of Strangers” is also about social etiquette. When does the moment come when you tell someone who is friendly, helpful and completely annoying that you’ve had enough and will be on your way?
Pinter’s work explores this concept (“The Birthday Party” is a great example) and his sometimes cryptic, stripped down, minimalist dialogue adds his trademark air of mystery and potentially varying interpretations to each encounter. Both Mary and Robert have “awful” stories that they keep circling back to, which reveal core aspects of their personalities.
There’s also the question Mary and Colin keep asking themselves: “Why did we come back?”
With a few adjustments, Schrader’s film would work well as a play (after all, it’s basically a drama about four people). However, you’d lose what a visual feast this film is. Angelo Badalamenti’s score (a far cry from his famous work provided for David Lynch during this era) is as radiant as the cinematography by Dante Spinotti.
While Venice looks lovely here, it also seems unnaturally empty, in the same way Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (also about a couple whose uneasy relationship leads them on ill-advised adventures) gives us an unusually empty New York. The set of Walken’s apartment is unusually lush and ornate, the first clue that something is terribly off.
Schrader’s films are about transformative moments, in which, to cite a few examples, characters change their values (“Hardcore” and “Auto Focus”), faith (“First Reformed”), state of mind (“Patty Hearst”) and even their physicality (“Cat People” and “Dominion – Prequel to The Exorcist”).
Here, the initial perception, numb complacency and naïve adventurousness of the traveling couple becomes unknowingly intertwined by Robert and Caroline.
Shades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” come to mind, particularly in the way their protagonists aren’t really on vacation but travelers with no real desire to return home and, as a result of this mindset, are vulnerable to being immersed into the terrain they find themselves visiting.
You wonder if the characters played by Richardson and Everett will escape from the uncertain scenario they find themselves in, or simply vanish down a dark corner.
Walken in incredible in this. His graceful movement suggests the song and dance man he has always been but, aside from a few roles (particularly “Pennies from Heaven” and Spike Jonze’s brilliant “Weapon of Choice” music video), we rarely got to see on film.
This is the actor in his prime, when he was a hypnotically intense, adventurous film star, using his Academy Award (for “The Deer Hunter”) as leverage to appear in risky and eclectic movies like this one.
Of late, Walken has stumbled down the path of self-parody that has plagued Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and too many other estimable actors, who need to avoid five-dollar-bin fodder with sitcom-ready dialog (the forthcoming “The War with Grandpa,” starring De Niro and Walken, does not instill confidence).
When Walken made “The Comfort of Strangers,” it was in the middle of a time when he was bouncing around from playing a Bond villain, UFO abductee Whitley Streiber and appearing in an Abel Ferrara drama, but before his iconic “gold watch” speech in “Pulp Fiction” elevated his standing with audiences.
Walken was making a living at playing men who easily controlled any room they were in. Playing a middle-aged Italian with a lite accent (which Walken casually filters through his own distinct New York dialect), the actor brings layers and charisma to a role most would just shade with tell-tale menace.
Richardson, having just played the title role in Schrader’s uneven but respectable “Patty Hearst,” is very good in this and serves as the audience surrogate. She’s earthy and luminous, providing the film with its emotional center. Everett is far more enigmatic, if only because his character is struggling to define where his relationship stands, as well as grasp the hold Robert has on them.
Mirren is so spooky here, as her natural loveliness and intensity is eclipsed by her character’s neediness and seemingly possessed state of mind. Mirren is always riveting, but I don’t remember ever finding her frightening, as she is here.
When that killer ending arrives, it doesn’t hit as hard as the finish of Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (another worthy companion piece) but it leaves us stunned and, most importantly, completely creeped out. The ending may cause many to exclaim, “Oh, c’mon!” but it’s actually effective in its nightmarish theatricality.
There’s subtext here on the vulnerable existence of tourists, wandering an unknown land that always puts them at a disadvantage (why leave home in the first place, if you have money and a nice life just waiting for you?). We learn this a return trip to Venice for Mary and Colin, minus the kids and unease of their lives at home. However, the question presses at them as the events unfold.
Indeed, why did they come back?
“The Comfort of Strangers” explores that elliptical question. It also will make those starved for a getaway to re-think that next globe-trotting vacation. Social distancing is a drag, no doubt, but compared to getting stuck with Walken’s Robert in a foreign city, most would choose to stay home.