May 13, 2013
While his keenly kaleidoscopic Yukio Mishima biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), as the director himself has recognized, is American auteur Paul Schrader’s greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker, especially in terms of its aesthetic magnitude, I personally prefer his rather darker and mysterious works Hardcore (1979) and The Comfort of Strangers (1990), with the latter film being what I consider to be his most overlooked and underrated cinematic work yet which has virtually nil reputation and fan base in the United States. Rather ironically, Schrader—a man who is often regarded as a greater screenwriter than he is a filmmaker—did not pen the script for The Comfort of Strangers, but instead Nobel Prize-winning English playwright Harold Pinter adapted the screenplay from a 1981 book of the same name written by British novelist Ian McEwan—an author described by The New York Times critic John Leonard as, “one of the few English writers of fiction who belong these days to a dark Europe; he is a Samuel Beckett with some genital organization.” And, indeed, Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers portrays a rather ominous and uncertain Europa, most specifically Venice, Italy (although the novel takes place in an unnamed city) where men no longer act like men and accept responsibility as fathers and patriarchs and where women, who have bought into feminism and can no longer rely on the strength and discipline that was a given for men of the past, have stepped up to the plate and have developed a sense of independence they never once had before, at least in terms of the Occident. Starring statuesque English sodomite Rupert Everett (Another Country, Cemetery Man) in the role of a modern weak and vain, albeit ostensibly heterosexual, man who is more concerned with his own appearance than that of the future of his relationship with his girlfriend (played by English actress Natasha Richardson) and Christopher Walken as a menacing Italian man who hates modernity and respects the patriarchal tradition, The Comfort of Strangers is a feverishly foreboding flick about what happens when a narcissistic proto-metrosexual Brit meets up with a Guido ‘spiritual fascist’ of sorts with a broken manhood who does not take kindly to ‘communist poofs’ and independent women with idealistic diarrhea of the mouth.
British couple Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) have traveled to Venice for vacation so as to discuss the dubious future of their relationship. A nauseatingly vain man who has the audacity to admit he is jealous of his girlfriend’s pulchritude, Colin is not sure if he wants to stay with Mary because she is a single mother with children from a previous relationship and he does not particularly like children as it seems it would take away attention for himself. Unbeknownst to them, a Venetian couple—a cunning and charismatic Italian-British (with a Guido father and Brit mother) man named Robert (Christopher Walken) and his Canadian wife Caroline (Helen Mirren in a surprisingly submissive role)—have been watching the British couple ever since they arrived in Venice and have been taking voyeuristic pictures of Colin. One night after getting lost looking for a restaurant in Venice, Colin and Mary are approached by a stranger named Robert, who is dressed like a dapper dandy in a white suit and who is quite an articulate individual who seems to speak virtually every European language, and he brings them to his bar (although never telling the couple he owns it). A seemingly wealthy bar owner with what most people would describe as an anachronistic worldview, Robert always speaks of the greatness of the past when men were men and women were women, especially in regard to his father and grandfather. Upon first meeting Colin and Mary, Robert is asked how he met his wife Caroline, which he responds with “Let me tell you something: My father was a very big man. And all his life he wore a black mustache. When it was no longer black, he used a small brush, such as ladies use for their eyes. Mascara” and goes on a seemingly senseless spiel about how his older sisters traumatized him by covering him with make-up as a child and getting him drunk and locking him in their father’s much cherished study where he vomited and defecated everywhere, which the patriarch apparently never forgave him for. When Colin and Mary later go back to Robert’s lavishly furnished and classically stylized apartment, the Venetian would-be-alpha tells the bitchy brit, “My father and his father understood themselves clearly…They were men…And they were proud of their sex. Women understood them too. Now, women treat men like children because they can’t take them seriously, but men, men like my father, my grandfather…women took very seriously. There was no uncertainty. No confusion.” When Colin makes a cynical comment regarding the Italian Stallion’s serious speech, Robert gives him a nice hard punch in the gut, which the ballsy beta of a Brit takes like a true bitch, pretending it never happened. Not long after, Colin and Mary join Robert and Caroline for dinner, where the gentlemanly Italian man compliments the British government and the Brit calls it “shit.” Angered by Colin’s cynical arrogance and liberal persuasion, Robert remarks, “I respect you as an Englishman but not if you are a communist poof.” Of course, as a man who pathologically snaps photos of a handsome male stranger and makes love to his wife with those same photos hanging over his bed, Robert’s actions seem to contradict his words.
As one learns whilst watching The Comfort of Strangers, Robert and Caroline have a somewhat unconventional sexual relationship that involves violent sadomasochism, which has left the wife partially crippled, which the little loony lady sees as a badge of honor of sorts. As Caroline proudly confesses to Mary, she enjoys the abuse her husband has given her (and “feeling like nothing”) and is quite thrilled to remain a slave in her own home at the demand of her domineering husband. Upon meeting the English couple, Caroline remarks regarding Colin’s wimpy demeanor, “Isn’t it sweet when men are shy?” as the Brit boy’s alien behavior seems like an absurd novelty when compared to the severe sternness of her husband—a man who sees it as his duty to put a woman in her place. Ultimately, cowardly 'gentle'-man Colin becomes the pretty prey of Robert and Caroline and—being a self-absorbed pansy with no predatory sense—the Englishman lacks the instincts to realize he is being drawn into a web that will lead to his premature demise. Towards the conclusion of The Comfort of Strangers, Robert remarks to Colin regarding a conversation with a friend, “I was telling the…that…you’re my lover and that Caroline is jealous because she likes you too,” thus playing with his prey before the kill, yet also hinting at a homosexual side that he is rather ashamed of hence why the effeminate Englishman will ultimately be the victim of his unhinged mind. Undoubtedly, Robert seems to see everything he hates about himself personified in Colin—a cowardly cynic with no strong sense of values who cares more about his appearance than his masculinity (or lack thereof)—thus explaining the Venetian ‘man’s man’ seemingly inexplicable dual hatred/fascination with the effortlessly effete Englishman. In a sense, Robert’s eventual crime against Colin towards the end of The Comfort of Strangers is a macabre act of mercy against a biological man with a chiseled Roman-like face and muscular body who is not mentally fit to be a man. It is only in his violent death that Colin becomes a man for the first time in his life, but also becomes the martyr of his Adonis-esque beauty, which, in a sense, was what he also dreamed of as an exceedingly vainglorious man.
A postmodern psychosexual horror flick disguised as a romantic melodrama set in paradise, The Comfort of Strangers is a sadistically seductive cinematic work that, like the British couple in relation to antagonist Colin, takes the viewer on an exotic and mystifying ride until it is too late and one is backed into a petrifying corner of no return. A virtual European arthouse flick as directed by a Hollywood outsider, The Comfort of Strangers is as good as foreigner directed films get when depicting Europa as a work that never attempts to contrive the kultur of the people it portrays, but makes it quite apparent to the viewer one is in a strange place with a rich history and historical legacy that its contemporary countrymen can no longer live up to. More importantly, The Comfort of Strangers is one of a handful of semi-Hollywood films that portrays the virtual death of masculinity and tradition in the Occident and does not exactly portray it as a good thing as one would expect from similarly themed works, but that probably has to do with the fact that it is an American/UK/Italian co-production as opposed to a purely Hebraic Hollywood production. Indeed, the character of Colin—the defender of patriarchy and tradition—may be a pernicious psychopath, but he is also a failed male as well as a curious perv who can only be superficially suave (and does quite an immaculate job doing it!) and obsess over the legacy of his father, the “Big Man,” and not his own legacy, while Rupert Everett’s character is a proud pansy wuss (or “communist poof”) who perishes without putting up a fight and whose girlfriend has more common sense than he does. When it comes down to it, the fact Everett’s character is gone will only have a positive effect on his girlfriend and her children, who certainly do not need a beta girly-man who pathologically admires himself in the mirror around as a pseudo-father figure. When it comes to the death of the traditional sexes in the Occident, you will not find a more contemplative and insightful yet equally thrilling mainstream film than The Comfort of Strangers—a metaphysical horror flick that takes a brief look at sexual aberration in post-WWII Western man, but only leaves the viewer with questions and offers no answers.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 8:18 PM
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