AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS – CANNES 1990
"My father was a big man. All his life he wore a moustache. And when it turned gray he used a little brush to make it black, such as ladies use for their eyes. 'Mascara'"
by Harlan Kennedy
Movie people have their own perspective on Europe. When it comes to the Mediterranean, only two places exist. Cannes, kicking off the film festival season, is the shop window where new life goes on display. Spring fever infects producers' wallets, stars' vanity, and directors' egos. Life is young, naïve, and venal.
Venice, ending the summer with another junket, is stranger and more crepuscular. There, films darkly flower before winter closedown. And as fall steals over the lagoon, directors like Paul Schrader come to the tourist-emptied town to make films like The Comfort of Strangers. Cameras turn in the mist; art's mystery unfolds. Six months later – Alakazam! – the completed movie is uncanned at Cannes. The wonderful cycle of movie life continues.
"Wonderful" is a word one cant get out of one's head regarding Schrader's film. I saw the movie at Cannes 1990. Dazzled, I went to see it again the next day. With hundreds of movies on view, this is not something you do lightly at a film festival: you wake up screaming every night from dreams in which you're being strangled by thick coils of celluloid. (Dear Dr. Freud, Sometimes a coil of celluloid is just a coil of celluloid.) Not since Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now has any movie filled Venice with such menacing wonder. Not since the heyday of Losey-Pinter has any film so wondrously played off baroque visuals against gnomic dialogue (by Pinter). And in the dawn of a decade in which we may be clubbed senseless by Euro-American movies, what better example could be set than by this Italo-U.S. coproduction, which throws English and American stars at a film produced, scored, photographed, and wardrobed by Italians? (Clothes by Giorgio "Spare that steam-iron" Armani.)
But let's not present The Comfort of Strangers merely with a Good American–European Relations award. The film's triumph is that it consummates Schrader's love affair with European culture and cinema. This passion has been ongoing ever since his scriptwriting baptism of fire Taxi Driver (inspired by Pickpocket). It has continued through movies like American Gigolo (Stendhal's Scarlet and Black), Cat People (Lewtonian Central-European Gothic), and Light of Day (Faust redone as teen rock melodrama).
In 1979, waxing prophetic about U.S. cinema's continental drift towards Europe, Schrader said this: "Fifteen years ago, critics led the backlash against European art films in favor of the American cinema. It is ironic that it is now the filmmakers, not the critics, who are leading the counter-backlash toward European cinema. A growing number of American films are turning to the European classics for their stylistic inspiration."
That was then, this is now. But time has proved Schrader right, and he's getting righter. Today the European imperative devolves not just from the way certain American filmmakers like to be bitten by favorite European directors (Woody Allen and Bergman, Schrader and Bresson). Nor from the growing tendency for popular U.S. cinema to recycle big European hits (Three Men and a Baby, Three Fugitives, Cousins). Today the Euro-U.S. accord is motivated mainly by brute film-business logistics. With tariff walls going up around a united Europe in 1992, Hollywood wants to be in place to get a piece of the action. Paramount has already built a bridgehead office in London, and Disney and Universal are breaking ground on either side of the English Channel.
All these Euro-factors may mysteriously have conspired to place Paul Schrader in Venice, there to make a film produced by Italy's Angelo Rizzoli and scripted by England's Harold Pinter from fellow Englishman Ian McEwan's novel. The whole package was put together by Sovereign Pictures, which specializes in charging round the globe making unlikely international deals. The resulting movie could have been a nightmare; most of these Babel enterprises are. It turns out to be a dream.
The main reason is, Schrader has . turned the standard vice of the coproduction – its diselementedness – into a virtue. The Comfort of Strangers is a masterpiece about not belonging. Indeed, for much of its opening hour it's a masterpiece about getting lost. English lovers Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett prowl the dim-lit Venice alleys, where mazy corners return them to starting-point and mirror-sleek canals duplicate their bewilderment. Sundered from children and employers back in England (her children, his publisher), the willowy young writer and the quizzical young woman are trying to piece together a love life. But they're in a city where they can hardly piece together their own geography.
A white suit containing Christopher Walken hoves out of the darkness. It's after midnight in some God-forsaken alley and the couple hasn't eaten. Would you refuse the kindness of a tall, polite stranger who knows a late-night bar still serving food?
Except that it isn't. The food's run out. There's only wine and Walken's long, weird, faintly offensive monologues. About his strict father; about how his naughty sisters tied the boy up one day, full of cake and lemonade, and shut him up in Dad's precious study; about the incontinent chaos that resulted; about Dad's fury; about his sisters' glee; about how Walken later married ....
"What a terrible man;" says Richardson hours later, as they stagger out into the dark. They'll not run into him again, surely. But this is movie Venice: they will. They are invited to his appartamento – which resembles a cross between a Venetian palace and an Oriental mosque seen through an opium dream. They meet his wife Helen Mirren, who complains of a bad back and whispers to them, "Please come back, I can't get out." Back at their hotel, they find their own sex life mysteriously recharged. They make love for days on end. They trade fantasies. Life is high and strange. They can leave Venice happy and renewed and unscathed. They head across town. They don't need to meet the terrible Walken and his wife again. They see the future and it is going to work. "My friends...."
There is no escaping the velvet claw of Venice, once the lion wakes, stretches itself, and sights you. There is blood before bedtime in this movie – but you probably guessed that already. You certainly intuit it pretty early if you see the film: from the bleeding backdrop sunsets, from the air of mildewed menace in Walken's never-bettered performance. Walken looks like Peter Finch after a bout of anorexia nervosa, and he speaks in a slow, flaky baritone – singsong and barely accented – as if intoning a litany rather than conducting a conversation.
But then that's one of the movie's points. It's about behavior as ritual, social intercourse as liturgy, passion – or psychosis – as ceremony. It's about the Old World (Venice-Italy-Europe) tendering its merciless, crafted affections to the New. Though Richardson and Everett are English, they could as easily be American innocents abroad: two of Henry James' wet-eared adventurers learning first lessons in life from the decadent Europeans.
Not for the first time – but never more effectively – Schrader builds his movie round a hero/heroine who courts self-knowledge through self-endangerment or self-destruction. Half-willing themselves into terror, the couple in The Comfort of Strangers joins a gallery that also includes Travis Bickle, Mishima, Patty Hearst, and even the humanized, harrowed Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Wandering into Schrader territory, Ian McEwan's novel sets its characters adrift on a sea of threatening uncertainty. The novel quotes Cesare Pavese as a foretext: "Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it."
The purification of personality by stripping away "comfort" is the essence of tragedy. It's also the essence of Schrader's own moral dramas of discomfiture, from Blue Collar to Patty Hearst. And it accounts for the humanist's – or lapsed Calvinist's – interest in the story of Christ. As a tale, The Comfort of Strangers proceeds by startlingly New Testament steps. It begins with goodness born into a foreign land; it presents the recognition of evil as a baptism into the world; it moves on to persecution, foreboding, the treachery of "friends," and a climactic blood sacrifice.
No city could better host the sense of being "constantly off balance" than Venice. In movies even more than in literature, the terra infirma of a city built on water is a favored setting for stories of intrigue, mystery, or crime. (Amsterdam, Miami, Bangkok.) Venice's temptress visual deceptions help Schrader turn up the movie's suspense to an almost unbearable degree. Identifying with the bemused and vulnerable visitors – we all feel like that abroad – we recognize the seedy lure of the city and the seedier lure of the stranger who offers comfort. He's the man on the next airplane seat who buttonholes you when the meal tray comes, the guy who strikes up uninvited chat in a foreign restaurant. The friendlier he is, the more apprehensive we feel. The Devil can be such a charmer. (How friendly Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie were to James Stewart and Doris Day in Morocco. Ché sarà sarà.)
Schrader coaxes us towards terror, aided by Venice's shadowplay and watery mirror tricks, and by Walken's putrefactious charm. Also by photography and music that have a sickly, languorous beauty. The first gives us dusty-auburn color and sudden, disorienting crane shots, rearing up to hypnotize us like a snake. The second turns its gloomy, mellifluous surgings into half-perceived variations on "There may be trouble ahead:' (Clearly the tune of the season; Batman also played around with it.)
Instability is the film's theme and keynote. And in Venice the metaphor for instability goes deeper even than the streets made of water. Built on centuries-old wooden piles, the city sits on strata of decaying history as if Venice were a rotting emblem for European culture itself.
The Comfort of Strangers is about the passion of New World innocence, slain on the cross of Old World decay and experience. The theme is built into the very rhythms of Pinter's screenplay. A long filial memory-monologue by Walken ("My father was a big man. .. ") is repeated several times, like a litany. Once, voice-off in an opening camera prowl through the lush palazzo. Later as he regales Everett and Richardson in the bar. Finally, as an explanation of his behavior to the surreal Italian police ("We don't get it," bleats the inspector, wrapping B-movie locutions in a Po Valley accent).
Of course the speech explains nothing. Or rather, it appears not to. It seems as ritualized and decrepit as the layers of compacted history Venice and Europe are built on. It suggests that the European mindset believes that merely to trawl back through the past, counting off ghosts, will "explain" everything. When Everett asks Walken why he has been covertly snapping photographs of him, Walken answers by pointing first to a barbershop they are passing, then to Venice's Cemetery Island: places of repair and repose for his grandfather and father. History, suggests the scene, is simply about dead people. And dead responses. There seems to be no connection at all between Everett's question and Walken's reply.
But of course there is. History is more than the sum total of the dead and buried. If we dig deep enough, these non-sequitur invocations of the past start to explain everything. Walken's pursuit and eventual murder of Everett becomes his revenge against his father's cosmetic manliness ("Mascara") and against the homosexual traces written on his own personality. And the sado-masochistic relationship between Walken and Mirren – wow, what a movie! – is on one level a reprise of, and reprisal against, the tormenting practical joke once visited on him by his sisters. On a deeper level, it's a rehearsal for death by a couple who in mortality-enamored Venice see Thanatos and Eros as a two-backed beast.
So history can explain, it can give life and meaning to the unknowable. The decaying strata of Venice become symbolic with the psychic striations of the characters' minds. And as if vampirically, the Old World becomes more alive during the movie while the New World becomes more drained and cadaverous.
Schrader finds a perfect imagistic language for this. Venice's trompe-l'oeil restlessness as a city turns it into a playground for ghostly deceits and mocking anthropomorphism. Empty gondolas curtsey in the midnight waters; floor-length paintings prove to be doors; Venetian alleys echo each other like the cries of the lost. Conversely, the "modern" is cold, stiff, frightening. Lost down yet another alley, Everett and Richardson happen on a shop window displaying, in eerie blue light, a pair of mannequins sprawled in a double bed. It's at once a parody of their own ailing relationship and the image of a world banished to a zone of terminal sterility. "Looks like a space shuttle" is Everett's only comment. (Indeed, as inert images combine to create an eerie polyphony of movement and meaning, The Comfort of Strangers seems as close to Antonioni as to Losey-Pinter.)
American popular cinema has had a long heyday as the darling of modern film criticism: from the idolizing by the Cahiers crowd of "le cinéma Hitchcocko-Hawksien" to the Hollywoodophilia of later European filmmakers like Wenders, Fassbinder, and Bertolucci. But European cinema is now poised to fanfare its own values again, especially at the outset of an age likely to be riddled with hands-across-the-Atlantic movie projects. Those values lie in a conviction that a movie's poetic subtext is as important as its narrative clarity, and that the audience should be encouraged to make its own deductions and connections about a story's meaning rather than have it spoonfed to them.
Ambiguity and complexity are worth championing, even in a generation when movie criticism has gone chronically populist. For too long now, critics have been trotting out the phrase "classical narrative cinema" at the drop of a Boetticher Western, a Sam Fuller thriller, or a piece of junk, ancient or modern, by Raoul Walsh or John Carpenter. Classical narrative cinema should get back in line. Classical poetic cinema – the other side of the mirror – would like another bite at the world movie audience.
The wonder of The Comfort of Strangers is that it gives us the best of both in one film. It's a meeting between American and European minds that suggests hope is at hand. It proves you can tell a good story and still keep audiences searching keenly for the untold story. You can engage an audience's emotions and its mind at the same time. You can unfold the visible splendors of a beautiful city and still excite your audience into digging down into the cankered piles and lost striations for the true, sunken poetry.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1990 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.