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Non-Review Review: The Comfort of Strangers

Let me tell you something: My father was a very big man. And all his life he wore a black mustache. When it was no longer black, he used a small brush, such as ladies use for their eyes. Mascara.

– Robert

The Comfort of Strangers is… a strange film. I can appreciate what it’s doing (or rather what it is trying to do), but it never quite comes together. Perhaps it’s because the movie seems structured as too much of a thought exercise rather than a finished dramatic production. There’s food for thought here, but there’s really not too much else.

Never wander off with strangers... ESPECIALLY if they're Christopher Walken...

Note: I will be discussing the film’s ending, which is kinda important. But don’t worry, I’ll flag it beforehand. Plus, this film is nearly twenty years old, so I figure it’s fair game.

The basic plot (as much as there is one) has a holidaying couple in Venice encounting a mysterious man who goes by the name Robert. He takes them to what is clearly a gay bar and then proceeds to share with them a variety of increasingly lewd stories about his childhood and various sexual and scatological incidents. As one does when first meeting strangers.

Of course, rather than running away from this strange Italian man – who, for extra bonus unsettling points is brought to life by a brilliantly disturbing Christopher Walken – they end up accepting an invitation back to his place, where they fall asleep and he steals their clothes and his wife watches them sleep. But Colin and Mary stay for dinner anyway. Because the last thing you want to be is rude.

The film has a whole host of problems. The first is that, despite being an intellectual study of gender roles and relations, that doesn’t allow the film to be excessively casual in establishing menace. Just as in the cheapest and dumbest slasher movie we would yell at the screen to convince the silly blonde teenager not to run up the stairs because there’s no way out, here we have to believe that – despite all the stuff mentioned above – Colin and Mary would not only run as far away from Robert as possible, they’d also decline (probably politely) all his invitations. Put frankly, Robert may be the most interesting thing about this film, but that doesn’t outweigh the fact that he’s simply creepy and that anyone who makes a point of seeing him repeatedly is no smarter than the kids who inadvertently summon a demon or visit a haunted house. The fact the leads here much old and (supposedly) much more sophisticated, makes it stand out so much more.

Which brings us to the second complaint. I was going to right that Colin and Mary aren’t particularly likable protagonists, but that is beside the point. Plenty of great films have thoroughly unlikeable characters. The bigger problem is simply that Colin and Mary are thoroughly uninteresting. The screenplay, by Harold Pinter, hints at all kinds of sexual dysfunctions and simmering mistrust (Mary accuses Colin of disliking her children at one point), but that doesn’t make them interesting. They simply wander around and serve a plot function – they’re just the people we have to spend time with before Christopher Walken can get back to stealing the show. I look back over the film, and the most definitive moment for Colin is when he throws a ball to a child in Venice. Thats about a second and a half of footage, but you see Rupert Everett smile and it seems like there might actually be someone interesting in there. But instead he’s straight back to being as dull as dishwater.

Christopher Walken is great as Robert. He is fantastic. Nobody can make you feel just a little bit unsettled like Christopher Walken. He’s clearly a guy who has more dysfunction in his little finger than our leading couple, but he’s fascinating to watch. Not so fascinating that I’d walk with ten feet of him in real life or acknowledge him, but interesting none-the-less. He doesn’t nearly redeem the movie, but – like most of the random Walken-starring movies you’ll find cluttering up digital movie channels – Walken is the best thing about the film. Helen Mirren isn’t half-bad as his wife, either, to be honest.

The cinematography is also lovely. Venice looks nice and there are some great shots. There are some early sequences which skilfully capture the city as a living maze with no fixed topography, where one may easily become lost or confused. It’s not fascinating enough to redeem the movie, because we don’t care for the people stuck in the maze, but it’s still a solid ‘plus’ for the movie.

Now we’re entering spoiler territory. You have been warned. Seriously. Okay, I’ve done my bit.

Robert is a killer. A wannabe serial killer, from the looks of things. I am not the fastest person in the history of film, but I grasped it early on. Maybe it’s all the CSI I’ve been watching, but it seemed incredibly obvious by the halfway point at the latest. I mean, the movie opens with Robert rehearsing his lines – creating and rehearsing the fantasy. His escalating violence during the movie (both alluded and actually shown) suggest an individual no longer able to contain their urges. His sexual deviance matches any number of suggestions about sexual identity and violent offenders (but I’m less than comfortable that the film chooses to signpost Robert as ‘deviant’ by having him hang out at a gay bar before it explores his violent sexual urges, but then maybe I’m overly politically correct).

In that regard, the film is interesting. It’s rare to focus on a killer’s (particularly a serial killer’s) first crime. We stereotypically meet them in the middle of a string of killings or drawn in that ridiculous cliché Hollywood manner. Pinter’s screenplay seems an honest and thorough look at such a character, in a way that isn’t cast in the typical thriller mold. So, it’s original in that regard.

On the other hand, the film seems to invest a lot of faith in a remark that Robert makes early on. In introducing himself to Colin and Mary, he suggests that it’s impossible to know him without knowing his early life and that it’s impossible to know his early life without knowing his father. It’s a very holistic approach to life, and one that historians would undoubtedly approve of (in that in order to understand the world, you need to understand the history of the world). For Robert, this philosophy is merely an excuse to segue into his rehearsed and practiced speech about his father and his sisters. The film, however, takes the sentiment at face value. It believes that in order to show us what happens, it must make us spend time with and care about Colin and Mary, but only as the victims of Robert’s violence.

The truth is that it isn’t necessary, but – even if it were – it doesn’t offer a reason for the film to create two characters who are as dull as dishwater. I’m sure Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson tried their best with the material, but the movie feels very empty. The characters don’t seem real enough for the audience to accept them as anything other than ‘Robert fodder’.

And that’s the problem. There are some good ideas here and a clever enough conceit with the ending – as well as a superb leading performance. Unfortunately everything else is just cold. There’s no live here, no energy. It’s just cold, stale and dead.

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