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Comfort of Strangers (The Criterion Collection), The
Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan and adapted for the screen by playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter, director Paul Schrader's 1990 film The Comfort Of Strangers tells the story of an English couple, Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson). He's a writer, living as a bachelor, while she has two kids from her first marriage. At the beginning of the film we come to learn that their relationship has seen better days, and to work on things and strengthen what they still have together, they decide to take a trip to Venice in hopes of once again finding the spark.
Things start off quite well, the change in location seeming to have given their love life a boost, and then they meet a foreigner named Robert (Christopher Walken). They're quiet taken with the restaurateur and his flamboyant lifestyle. When he invites them to dinner they leave the night intoxicated and, unable to find their way back to their hotel, pass out in the streets. When, the next day, Robert finds out what has happened he invites them to his fancy seaside home and they accept. They enjoy themselves and spend the night, and the next morning, meet Caroline (Helen Mirren), a Canadian woman who is Robert's wife, who suffers from some extreme back pain. As Colin and Mary get to know Robert and Caroline better, it quickly becomes clear to the audience just who is in charge here and a series of sadomasochistic games of power and control play out as the film builds towards a very tense and unexpected conclusion.
Schrader's attempt to make a European style arthouse film is an interesting picture, despite its flaws. None of what happens in the film feels particularly plausible, yet we go along with it because the production values and acting is so good. The likelihood of what happens in this movie actually happening is slim to none, but if you can get past that obstacle (and understandably, some viewers won't be able to), there's much to appreciate about this twisted thriller. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti deserves a lot of credit here, his compositions are just perfect and this film is nothing if not a ridiculously lush and decadent feast for the eyes. The score from frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti is also excellent, doing everything it can and then some to enhance the mood that the film works so hard to conjure up.
Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson are pretty solid as the couple out of their element in more ways than one. We want them to be able to rekindle what they have, and they certainly work towards that, but at what price? They both handle their characters well, they look great and deliver some occasionally ridiculous dialogue with enough conviction to make it work. It's Walken and Mirren that make the stronger impression, however, and when you see how all of this plays out you can't help but understand why. Walken in particularly is very interesting to watch here, playing his character with a memorably strange accent and infusing his Robert with all of the quirkiness that you might expect if you're familiar with a lot of his work. Mirren's character is, on the surface at least, much more fragile than the others, and she makes this character very interesting to watch.
Ultimately, the film fails to offer enough character development to work as well as it really should have, and it stays a bit too distant to really work as an intimate exploration of sexual dynamics, but despite the film's obvious flaws, the film has more than enough going for it to make it worth checking out.
The Comfort Of Strangers arrives on a 50GB Blu-ray disc framed at 1.66.1 widescreen in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition taken from a "new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dante Spinotti." Taking up 31.7GBs of space on the disc, the transfer is excellent, looking naturally filmic throughout and retaining the expect amount of film grain without showing much actual print damage at all. Colors are reproduced beautifully and black levels look nice and deep from start to finish. There are no problems with any digital anomalies like noise reduction or edge enhancement and the strong bit rate keep compression artifacts out of the frame. This is beautifully filmic looking throughout, the movie looks great.
The 24-bit LPCM Mono audio track sounds great. Dialogue is always clean and clear and easy to understand and the track is balanced properly throughout the duration of the picture. The score sounds quite nice and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note. Optional subtitles are provided in English.
Extras start off with a few new interviews, the first of which gets director Paul Schrader in front of the camera for eighteen-minutes to talk about how and why he came to direct this project in this first place, his thoughts on the source material, the themes that the picture deals with, casting the picture and his thoughts on how it all worked out. Leading man Christopher Walken is up next in a quick, six-minute interview where he speaks about his thoughts on the character he plays in the film, what it was like working with Schrader as a director and how he acted with an accent in the picture. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti talks for fourteen-minute about the specifics of the visuals used in the film and how they tie into the source material, working with Schrader and the Venetian locations that were used for the shoot. The last new interview gets editor Bill Pankow in front of the camera for fifteen-minutes to offer his thoughts on the editing process employed to finish the film as well as the movie overall as a whole.
Criterion has also includes some archival interviews, starting with a seven-minute piece from 2001 where actress Natasha Richardson about what she tried to bring to the role, her character, taking direction from Schrader and what it was like working on the film. A second archival interview, from 1981, sees novelist Ian McEwan speak for twenty-seven-minutes about the process of writing the novel on which this film was based. Excerpted from an interview he did with The Southbank Show, it's interesting to get his thoughts on the work that inspired the movie.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are two trailers for the feature, menus and chapter selection options. The disc comes packaged with a color insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and the presentation, technical notes on the restoration and an essay on the film written by Maitland McDonagh.
The ending of The Comfort Of Strangers still hits like a hammer, dividing audiences to this day. However, the movie really does hold up remarkably well. It's a twisted, psychosexual drama with some great twists and superb performances from every one of the principal cast members. The lush cinematography and excellent score only add to the film's many merits. The Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection looks and sounds superb and contains a nice selection of extra features as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.