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THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS

USA, 1990 (MIFF 1991)

Director: Paul Schrader

Something is off balance here, quite intentionally. This quirky, playful psychological thriller - the story of an ordinary English couple lured into the sumptuous home and sinister clutches of a Venetian husband and wife - is the product of a collaboration made in the Twilight Zone.

A chilling little novel by Ian McEwan became a mordant script by Harold Pinter, then a film by Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver. Each layer of the strangeness has been enhanced. This is obviously not the sort of partnership that will produce smooth, seamless, reassuring movies. It is an unsetding and daring collaboration, which always risks going completely over the edge and sometimes actually goes them.

Colin (Everett) and Mary (Richardson) are second honeymooning in Venice, striving to repair their stale relationship. At first a seemingly fortuitous encounter with the aristocratic Robert (Walken), a suave, domineering tale-spinner, bemuses them. But he also catalyses what remains of the couple's sexual feelings for each other, and as if mesmerised, they return to the palazzo he shares with his timid, submissive wife Caroline (Mirren), only half-oblivious to the dangers awaiting them.

The Comfort of Strangers sustains its ominous mood. It creates a Venice of oppressive buildings, overdecorated interiors and deepening shadows, an off-kilter city-scape reflecting the sexual seductiveness that Robert and Caroline embody. Careful pacing and casting (Everett and Richardson are naive and passive, the often-misused Walken seductive and unfathomabiy ambivalent) make for a film that, while directed with a cool discretion, is sensual and shocking in its casual evocation of erotic violence, emotional manipulation and moral torpor.

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