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‘The Comfort of Strangers’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 12, 1991

Just why have Natasha Richardson and boyfriend Rupert Everett returned to Venice? To understand themselves? To know if they want each other? To revitalize their relationship? These are the semi-motivations Paul Schrader strews before you in "The Comfort of Strangers."

Forget it. They're in Venice to be in an art film, that's all. Schrader's handsome psychodrama is an excuse for good-looking shots, artmosphere, and other Euro-cinematics.

But what a lovely excuse: The cinematography's bucolic. Human skin looks like gold flake. Venice is, of course, beautiful. People don't hang around, they pose in Armani. Designer Giorgio A., incidentally, gets up-front screen credit for this. You'd think he was director of photography.

The theme is, of course, ponderously inscrutable. Is the movie about the intrinsic dullness of English people? Something repressed is happening (or not happening) between Richardson and Everett. Is it about the tension between social behavior and animalistic desire? After meeting "Italian" stranger Christopher Walken, the couple's love life really gets -- come se dice? -- going.

This movie could also be about the dangers of going through Venice without a good tourist guide: "I wish we had a map," says Everett with underwear-ad angst. Then again, the watery city could be a metaphor for the maze of the soul, or the vagaries of fate, or the labyrinth of . . . never mind.

Whatever this movie's about, it's tailor-made for its audience. It's for those who fantasize about steamy afternoons in European hotel rooms. For those who thrive on meaningful (or meaningless) lulls between isolated events. For those who love the weighty (or lightweight) dialogue of screenwriter Harold Pinter.

"What you mean is, you don't think I like your children," Everett says to Richardson. Maybe you can find something in that.

"Comfort" is also a Roman holiday for Walken fans. He serves up his chilly-eyed gentleman-nutball shtick with entertaining gusto. He's got a recurring anecdote about childhood problems with his father. He has a strange, definitely twisted relationship with quirky wife Helen Mirren. And he's always a moment away from a fascistic, or homophobic, utterance.

"Perverts should be lined against a wall," he opines.

"I respect you as an Englishman," he tells Everett at another point. "But not as a communist poof. Is that the right word, 'poof'?"

Walken will eventually reveal his true colors under that white suit. Not that it'll make any sense. The ending doesn't exactly bring things full circle, but it sure makes up for idle time. It also explains why Schrader (he of bizarre mind-game movies) chose this project. Perhaps the police inspector, whose job it is to investigate what has happened, sums it up best.

"We don't get it," he says.

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