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Paul Schrader
Christopher Walken, Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson
Writing Credits:
Harold Pinter

A couple retreat to Venice to work on their relationship, but an encounter with a stranger leads them into a world of intrigue, where their darkest desires are in reach.

Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
English PCM Monaural
English Descriptive Audio
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 104 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 8/18/2020

• Interview with Director Paul Schrader
• Interview with Actor Christopher Walken
• Interview with Actor Natasha Richardson
• Interview with Cinematographer Dante Spinotti
• Interview with Editor Bill Pankow
• Interview with Novelist Ian McEwan
• Trailers
• Booklet


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The Comfort of Strangers: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1990)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 12, 2020)

Best known as the writer of classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader took the director’s chair for 1990’s The Comfort of Strangers. Based on Ian McEwan’s 1981 novel, Schrader avoids a writing credit here, as Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter does that job.

When they struggle with their relationship, British couple Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) take a vacation to Venice so they can reconnect. This doesn’t prove completely productive, but they attempt to sort through their issues.

As they search for a restaurant, they get lost, and bar owner Robert (Christopher Walken) invites them to his place. There he plies them with booze and tells bizarre tales about his life. This encounter leads to a strange relationship, one that forces the couple to confront various conflicts.

Given his history of gritty movies like those mentioned earlier, Schrader seems like an odd choice to handle a semi-artsy romantic drama like Comfort. That said, I admire his decision to step out of his zone and try something different.

Confronted with intensely dull lead characters, Schrader finds little to do with the material. Perhaps another director could locate substance here, but in Schrader’s hands, Comfort becomes 90 minutes of nothing punctuated by a shock ending.

As with other adaptations, it seems unclear how much of the blame falls on the director, the screenwriter and/or the novelist. Given that I entered the film without foreknowledge of the source, I can’t judge how faithfully the movie adheres to it.

All I do know is that Comfort offers a snoozer, a cautionary tale with little to really engage the viewer. We get the basic point not to trust strangers just to stay polite, and that’s about it.

Colin and Mary really do offer bland characters, and that becomes a fatal flaw. While attractive, they bring us a dull couple, and we never really invest in their relationship.

It doesn’t help that the nature of this partnership seems to change without rhyme or reason. One minute the two seem hopelessly disconnected from each other, while the next, they act like the closest of lovers.

Granted, I understand that this happens in long-term relationships, as you’ll go from zero to 60 – and back again - with little provocation. Not everything about romantic couplings follows a logical route.

However, the Mary/Colin relationship just never rings true. They feel like a phony movie couple, and we don’t care about them very much.

I guess Comfort attempts to compensate for their blandness with the oddball Robert and his equally strange wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). Both behave in overstated, theatrical ways that act as blaring sirens to warn Colin and Mary not to trust them.

Therein lies the aforementioned cautionary tale, as we see that Colin and Mary ignore their instincts because they don’t want to seem rude. These scenes go past the point of sanity, though, and they expect the viewer to swallow too much weirdness.

For instance, at one point, Caroline reveals that she crept into a bedroom and watched Mary and Colin as they slept. Our main couple essentially just shrugs and goes along with the evening, despite the fact any sane people would immediately head for the exit.

In addition, one scene shows a conversation during which Robert abruptly punches Colin in the stomach for no reason. Again: normal people would call it a night – and probably contact the police – but Colin just regains his breath and downs another glass of champagne.

If Comfort managed any real character development or events of interest, these flights of fancy would seem less problematic. However, as noted earlier, the movie’s first 90 minutes pass with remarkably little substance or dramatic tension.

Sure, we get the sense of strangeness from Caroline and Robert, but the film does little with this. It often feels more like an erotic travelogue than an actual narrative.

As mentioned, matters change at the end, as Comfort throws a startling ending at us. I can’t call this “out of nowhere” since the film’s portrayal of Caroline and Robert as weirdos seems intended to lead somewhere, but it still feels like shock for shock’s sake and a tacky attempt to override the ennui of the prior 90 minutes.

All of this leads to a slow, dull journey to not much of anywhere. Despite a ton of talent involved, Comfort fails to engage.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio C/ Bonus B-

The Comfort of Strangers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became a dated but generally good image.

Overall sharpness worked fine. Interiors and some wide shots displayed mild softness, but these instances didn’t dominate, so the movie usually appeared well-defined.

Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement. As for print flaws, the image lacked specks, marks or other defects. I noticed a stray gate hair late in the film but nothing else interfered.

Comfort provided a stylized palette, and the disc replicated those hues well. Some shots could be a little murky due to the era’s film stocks, but for the most part, the tones seemed well-reproduced.

Black levels seemed deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy without excessive opacity. Ultimately, Comfort offered a pretty positive image.

Movies from 1990 usually came with multichannel audio, but Comfort provides only a PCM monaural affair. Speech came across as reasonably distinct and natural, and I heard no edginess or problems related to intelligibility.

Effects showed good clarity, though they didn’t have much to do in this character-based tale. The music’s fidelity appeared fine for the most part, with reasonable range and depth. In the end, Comfort offered a clear and serviceable track, though it lost points due to its monaural nature.

In terms of extras, most of them stem from conversations with those involved in the film, and we open with an Interview with Director Paul Schrader. During this 17-minute, 29-second reel, he discusses the source and its adaptation, sets and locations, cast and performances, music, editing, and related domains.

Schrader offers a good collection of notes here. He covers an appropriate array of topics and does so in an honest, engaging way. It’s too bad he didn’t record a full commentary, as this becomes a strong interview.

An Interview with Actor Christopher Walken spans five minutes, 46 seconds and brings his thoughts about his role, his experiences on the shoot and his performance. Though brief, Walken gives us some useful memories.

From 2001, an Interview with Actor Natasha Richardson goes for six minutes, 13 seconds and adds her notes about her part and her work on the film. Like Walken, she provides a worthwhile perspective.

Next comes an Interview with Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. During his 13-minute, 17-second chat, he tells us about the film’s photography and his choices. Spinotti provides productive insights.

An Interview with Editor Bill Pankow fills 14 minutes, 28 seconds and covers the movie’s cutting and various choices. This turns into another informative chat.

From 1981, an excerpt from The South Bank Show brings a 26-minute, 24-second Interview with Novelist Ian McEwan. He tells us about his work across a few enterprises, with a look at Comfort about a third of the time. Recorded right around the time of the novel’s release, we find a nice perspective on the novelist’s efforts.

In addition to two trailers, we get a booklet. It includes art, credits and an essay by critic Maitland McDonagh. The booklet provides a satisfactory addition.

With prominent talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, The Comfort of Strangers should offer a bracing erotic thriller. Instead, it proceeds at the proverbial snail’s pace and lacks the substance it needs to succeed. The Blu-ray comes with generally good picture as well as adequate audio and a decent collection of informative supplements. Comfort winds up as a boring drama without much merit.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
0 3:
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