An English couple (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) holiday in Venice, planning to rekindle their relationship, leaving the distraction of her two children behind at home. The location certainly has what might be described as an Old World charm, but their listlessness with one another is not exactly assuaged by their surroundings. What they don't know is that they are being watched - and photographed - by a mysterious party who has taken an interest in them. This man is Robert (Christopher Walken and he's a resident, obviously rich, but somehow resistible...
Harold Pinter scripted Ian McEwan's novel for director Paul Schrader's adaptation, though it was planned for John Schlesinger originally. Pinter was very proud of his adaptations of other's novels for the cinema, and regarded a well-honed adaptation as a particular art of the writer that was underrated, even if his more ardent fans would wonder how much of his authorial voice survived in translating. With The Comfort of Strangers, he was in luck, as you could not envisage a more perfect set of material for him to apply his talents to, with the nastiness as obscure in objective reasoning as it was plain to see in its animal motives.
Everett and Richardson play a posh, bland couple, which makes their descent into the hands of evil oddly entertaining, if you took pleasure in watching Venus fly traps inexorably close around their prey. Though few would admit it, this impetus behind watching a horror film was at work even in a piece as literary as this one: sure, you viewed them to see the good guys reckon with the malevolent forces, but you also wanted to, frankly, see people get killed, in the "There but for the grace of God" satisfaction that it was not you who met such a sticky end. Not that this film was a fullblooded slasher flick, as this is a cool, languidly-paced film, but its thick atmosphere of cruelty made it interesting.
An exceedingly well-cast Walken appears in less than half of the film, but his sinister presence is felt throughout; as his wife, Helen Mirren played the most disturbing character, however, in what might be termed a folie a deux if madness were not an apparent element of what drove them on. They come across as if they could explain why they do what they do perfectly clearly, yet refuse to because it is beneath them, even beneath some contempt born of unwritten rules that the English couple should really have been aware of when they chose this city to stay in for their break. The fact that the pair sense something sexually exciting is in the air, as their intimate moments do indeed become more fired up as a result of their brush with the unpleasant upper classes, renders this all the more uneasy to watch, especially as we could tell doom was impending.
The Venice locations lend an air of old world decadence to proceedings, and particularly to Walken and Mirren's sado-masochistic duo, with the feeling the whole place had been around too long and any sophistication it once contained was souring as the buildings gradually sank into the water, the corruption turning in on itself to self-destruction, again appealing to the doom sensations that flooded the location even before the Mediterranean did. There was a rivalry between The Comfort of Strangers and Don't Look Now in that respect, and though you would have to admit the Nicolas Roeg picture was more accomplished, Schrader's conscious invocation of the impenetrable strangeness of Last Year at Marienbad as much as that seventies chiller boosted his work's ghastly air. How much you enjoy this film may depend on how soon you realise that not that much actually happens, but there's an inexorable menace to the atmosphere which holds it together. Music by Angelo Badalamenti adds to the classy, unsettling bleakness. There is only one word for thighs, isn't there?
[The BFI have released this on Blu-ray; those features in full:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Audio commentary by director Paul Schrader, newly recorded for this release
Prospectus for a Course Not Given: The Paul Schrader Film Masterclass (1982, 100 mins, audio only): Paul Schrader provides an illuminating precis of the film he had recently presented in America
Paul Schrader Guardian Interview (1993, 85 mins, audio only): the director discusses films and filmmaking with critic Derek Malcolm
Venice in War Time (1918, 1 min), The Glass Makers of Murano, Venice (1928, 4 mins), City Lights (1964, 3 mins): fascinating glimpses of Venice in archive film
Fully illustrated booklet with full film credits and new writing by Director of Photography Dante Spinotti, film historian Dr Deborah Allison, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, and Little White Lies essayist Paul Fairclough.]