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COMFORT OF STRANGERS, THE(director: Paul Schrader; screenwriters: Harold Pinter/from the book by Ian McEwan; cinematographer: Dante Spinotti; editor: Bill Pankow; music: Angelo Badalamenti; cast: Christopher Walken (Robert), Rupert Everett (Colin), Natasha Richardson (Mary), Helen Mirren (Caroline), Manfredi Aliquo (Concierge), David Ford (Waiter), Daniel Franco (Waiter); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mario Cotone/Angelo Rizzoli; Skouras Pictures; 1990-Italy/UK/USA)
“Languidly traverses a climate of moral ambiguity and emotional torpor without spilling any vino on the palazzo’s floor.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Paul Schrader’s (“American Gigolo”) cryptic psychological thriller, based on Harold Pinter’s screenplay and taken from the book by Ian McEwan, is a lushly photographed tale that conceals a hidden agenda that points to utter madness. It’s not the kind of film that can be comforting either intellectually or as a mere diversion; but, aside from its implausibilities in plot and its clumsy dialogue, it settles in an arthouse way for being an erotic shocker that languidly traverses a climate of moral ambiguity and emotional torpor without spilling any vino on the palazzo’s floor. The stifling mood so ably set leaves the viewer open to its greater cinematic beauty even if one is more than slightly bothered by its unpleasant, puzzling, and pointless story.

British lovers Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are on vacation in Venice for the second time in four years, as the beautiful people hope to reevaluate their troubled relationship. He’s a handsome, aloof and callow bachelor writer based in London and she’s an attractive, naive, giggly, divorced mom of two from Bristol, who wonders if her boyfriend is ready for a ready-made family.

Lost in the back alleys of Venice at night while looking for a restaurant, the tourists are befriended in the unlit streets by a mysterious aristocratic Venetian clad in a white suit–Robert (Christopher Walken). He takes the couple to his bar/restaurant and plies them with vino and spins colorful but grotesque stories about his feared diplomat father and his horrible childhood, leaving them put off by his sinister charm. Unable to find their way home, the couple spend the night in the street. The next morning, while sitting in an outdoor cafe, Robert spots them and when told about their misfortune insists they come to his house to catch some sleep and join him for supper. In his magnificent museum-like palazzo, they meet his submissive Canadian wife Caroline (Helen Mirren) who tells Mary she sat in their room and took great pleasure in watching them sleep in the buff. Despite obvious signs that this is a peculiar couple, one that has been watching them ever since they arrived, the Brits seem taken in by the strange emotional games being played by Robert and will return in a seemingly mesmerized state to see them again not fully aware of the dangers that lie ahead.

The film offers an examination of sexual freedom, but never closer than from a dreamy distance. It’s a cold voyeuristic study of its subjects that never lets us know enough about them to understand their motives or their deeper psychological nature.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”