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‘The Comfort of Strangers’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 12, 1991

Paul Schrader's "The Comfort of Strangers" is an elegantly wrought bit of nastiness. It's a Gothic chamber piece, just as it was in Ian McEwan's novella, set against the septic grandeur of Venice, but with a script by Harold Pinter, so that all the themes have been submerged, encoded, worked out in an intricate formula of aesthetic dots and dashes.

The film's personality is languid and suggestive; it's like a piece of moody, minor-key music sleepily wending its way toward some kind of harmonic resolution. The action turns on a romantic dilemma. Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) have come to Venice on vacation to decide where to go with their relationship. They wander the city like any pair of tourists, taking in the museums, getting lost in the mazelike labyrinth of narrow streets, but they seem curiously isolated from each other, talking very little, separated by the glass walls of their own thoughts. Emotionally they're stuck, each waiting for the other to make the first move, until late one night, while searching for an open restaurant, they meet Robert (Christopher Walken).

Robert, dressed immaculately in ghost-white Armani linen, becomes their guide, taking them deeper into the center of the maze. After leading them to a bar, he immediately begins a personal interrogation and, without invitation, shares with them his most intimate secrets, including a long, winding, perversely detailed monologue about his relationships with his father, his sisters and his wife. Spoken softly but dramatically, Robert's narrative has the well-rehearsed solemnity of an incantation; he seems to be casting a spell, and afterward, drunk on red wine, the couple wander out into the streets, get lost again and spend the night slumped against each other in a narrow alleyway.

Schrader doesn't us let us in on exactly what's happening here; he's content to let the relationships float. Robert's meeting with Mary and Colin was not an accident; he'd been tracking them for days, snapping pictures and, presumably, sizing them up. No one plays this mixture of refinement and debauchery better than Walken; instead of returning to his dressing room after every shot, you imagine him slinking off to his coffin, and the odor of the undead that he brings to his character permeates the entire movie.

It's not until the next morning, when Robert takes them to his villa for a nap to make up for leaving them stranded, that his designs begin to take shape. It's at this point too that the movie's flaws begin to reveal themselves. The reason that Schrader has dealt so obliquely with his story is that it doesn't bear up well under the bright light of scrutiny. When we're introduced to Robert's wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), who because of a back injury never leaves their luxurious flat -- and who informs Mary after her siesta that she sneaked a peek at them while they were sleeping -- it becomes clear that Robert and Caroline require accomplices to complete their sex lives; that Colin and Mary have become fantasy objects for them, partners in a very obscure psycho-sexual danse macabre.

Yes, it is that banal. Whenever Caroline moves, she winces in pain, then drops a little nugget about how being in love means you'd be willing to do anything, even let your lover kill you. "If necessary," she says. But do Mary and Colin bug out of there, pronto? Nope, they finish their dinner, then head back to their hotel, lock themselves in their room and make passionate love. For days. Colin even proposes that they move in together. Must have been something in the champagne.

Schrader glides artfully through all this, providing a handsome surface for our eyes to caress, possibly in the hope that our brains will get all caught up in his aesthetic maneuvers and think that something high-toned and profound is going on. Richardson's luminous simplicity is a great asset in this regard; she's so grounded and common-sensical in her approach to her character that she nearly salvages the most implausible exchanges, even the extravagant though predictable ending. And Walken ... well, he's in a world all his own. His accent is never quite right, but it's the way it's not quite right that makes him such an irresistibly eccentric presence. He suggests something that goes far beyond the filmmakers' calculations.

"The Comfort of Strangers" is rated R and contains nudity, sexuality and violence.

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