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Why ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ Richly Deserved a Criterion Collection Face Lift

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 make a journey to Venice to get away from her two youngsters and the routine of their relationship. One night time, whereas getting misplaced as they seek for a diner, they encounter Robert (Christopher Walken), a suave Italian who initially helps them however has a fashion and confessional means of storytelling they discover repelling.

They later discover themselves within the firm of Robert and his spouse, Caroline (Helen Mirren), whose hospitality is motherly in some methods however troubling in others.

Schrader’s movie, which relies on a 1981 Ian McEwan novel and tailored for the display screen by the good playwright Harold Pinter, is about how the presence of 1 couple dwelling in Venice impacts the transient lives of the opposite. In a means not dissimilar from a Thomas Berger novel (particularly “Neighbors” and “Meeting Evil,”), “The Comfort of Strangers” can be about social etiquette. When does the second come once you inform somebody who’s pleasant, useful and fully annoying that you just’ve had sufficient and will probably be in your means?

Pinter’s work explores this idea (“The Birthday Party” is a good instance) and his typically cryptic, stripped down, minimalist dialogue provides his trademark aura and probably various interpretations to every encounter. Both Mary and Robert have “terrible” tales that they hold circling again to, which reveal core elements of their personalities.

There’s additionally the query Mary and Colin hold asking themselves: “Why did we come again?”

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With a couple of changes, Schrader’s movie would work properly as a play (in spite of everything, it’s mainly a drama about 4 individuals). However, you’d lose what a visible feast this movie is. Angelo Badalamenti’s rating (a far cry from his well-known work supplied for David Lynch throughout this period) is as radiant because the cinematography by Dante Spinotti.

While Venice seems to be pretty right here, it additionally appears unnaturally empty, in the identical means Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (additionally a few couple whose uneasy relationship leads them on ill-advised adventures) provides us an unusually empty New York. The set of Walken’s condo is unusually lush and ornate, the primary clue that one thing is extremely off.

Schrader’s movies are about transformative moments, wherein, to quote a couple of examples, characters change their values (“Hardcore” and “Auto Focus”), religion (“First Reformed”), frame of mind (“Patty Hearst”) and even their physicality (“Cat People” and “Dominion — Prequel to The Exorcist”).

Here, the preliminary notion, numb complacency and naïve adventurousness of the touring couple turns into unknowingly intertwined by Robert and Caroline.

Shades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” come to thoughts, notably in the best way their protagonists aren’t actually on trip however vacationers with no actual need to return house and, because of this mindset, are susceptible to being immersed into the terrain they discover themselves visiting.

You marvel if the characters performed by Richardson and Everett will escape from the unsure situation they discover themselves in, or just vanish down a darkish nook.

Walken in unimaginable on this. His swish motion suggests the track and dance man he has all the time been however, except for a couple of roles (notably “Pennies from Heaven” and Spike Jonze’s good “Weapon of Choice” music video), we hardly ever bought to see on movie.

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This is the actor in his prime, when he was a hypnotically intense, adventurous movie star, utilizing his Academy Award (for “The Deer Hunter”) as leverage to look in dangerous and eclectic motion pictures like this one.

Of late, Walken has stumbled down the trail of self-parody that has plagued Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and too many different estimable actors, who have to keep away from five-dollar-bin fodder with sitcom-ready dialog (the forthcoming “The War with Grandpa,” starring De Niro and Walken, doesn’t instill confidence).

When Walken made “The Comfort of Strangers,” it was in the course of a time when he was bouncing round from taking part in a Bond villain, UFO abductee Whitley Streiber and showing in an Abel Ferrara drama, however earlier than his iconic “gold watch” speech in “Pulp Fiction” elevated his standing with audiences.

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Walken was making a dwelling at taking part in males who simply managed any room they have been in. Playing a middle-aged Italian with a lite accent (which Walken casually filters by way of his personal distinct New York dialect), the actor brings layers and charisma to a task most would simply shade with tell-tale menace.

Richardson, having simply performed the title position in Schrader’s uneven however respectable “Patty Hearst,” is superb on this and serves because the viewers surrogate. She’s earthy and luminous, offering the movie with its emotional heart. Everett is way extra enigmatic, if solely as a result of his character is struggling to outline the place his relationship stands, in addition to grasp the maintain Robert has on them.

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Mirren is so spooky right here, as her pure loveliness and depth is eclipsed by her character’s neediness and seemingly possessed frame of mind. Mirren is all the time riveting, however I don’t keep in mind ever discovering her horrifying, as she is right here.

When that killer ending arrives, it doesn’t hit as onerous because the end of Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (one other worthy companion piece) but it surely leaves us shocked and, most significantly, fully creeped out. The ending might trigger many to exclaim, “Oh, c’mon!” but it surely’s really efficient in its nightmarish theatricality.

There’s subtext right here on the susceptible existence of vacationers, wandering an unknown land that all the time places them at a drawback (why depart house within the first place, when you’ve got cash and a pleasant life simply ready for you?). We be taught this a return journey to Venice for Mary and Colin, minus the youngsters and unease of their lives at house. However, the query presses at them because the occasions unfold.

Indeed, why did they arrive again?

“The Comfort of Strangers” explores that elliptical query. It additionally will make these starved for a getaway to re-think that subsequent globe-trotting trip. Social distancing is a drag, little doubt, however in comparison with getting caught with Walken’s Robert in a overseas metropolis, most would select to remain house.

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