Using a vaporous nighttime Venice as setting, the ever-murky Harold Pinter as adapter of Ian McEwan’s novel and the sexually sinister Christopher Walken as star, director Paul Schrader (Patty Hearst, Mishima) has fashioned a film of surpassing creepiness. It’s pretentious, too, and sometimes maddeningly dull. But the erotically unsettling atmosphere – exquisitely rendered by cinematographer Dante Spinotti – soon seeps in.
Walken plays a Venetian aristocrat named Robert. Nattily decked out in a white suit, he follows an attractive British couple – Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) – around the streets and canals, surreptitiously taking photos. Mary and Colin have come to Venice on a holiday to rekindle a four-year relationship that is losing its edge. They clearly want something to happen.
And they get their wish. One late night, Mary and Colin get lost looking for a restaurant. Robert suddenly appears to guide them to a cafe he owns. He charms them at first with stories of his past, revealing intimate family secrets in the hope they will reveal intimacies of their own. Tired and lost, Mary and Colin accept Robert’s invitation to get some sleep in his lavish palazzo. They wake, naked and rested, to find their clothes missing. Later they learn from Robert’s ailing wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), that she has hidden their belongings. Caroline even tells them, unashamedly, that earlier she crept into their room and watched them sleep.
Schrader hits on something potent and provocative in these scenes. The strangeness of Robert and Caroline is intimidating, but it charges Mary and Colin sexually. The Venetian couple’s perverse fascination with them only sparks their carnal attraction to each other. Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave’s gifted daughter, infuses Mary with a wanton grace. And Everett skillfully charts Colin’s journey from passivity to passion. Mirren has an underwritten role, yet doesn’t overact to compensate. Walken, however, gives it the works. He stalks the alleys of Venice like a vampire ready to pounce. But Mary and Colin don’t see the danger in this seductively malevolent presence. Even when Robert’s behavior grows increasingly menacing, they are drawn into his web.
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Much of The Comfort of Strangers, including the shocker of a climax, is hard to swallow. The exemplar for using Venice as a psychological landscape remains Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. But Schrader is an astute guide through the circuitous byways of sexual manipulation. His hypnotic thriller supplies intelligent pleasures as well as gruesome chills.