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Review: The Comfort of Strangers

[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

The Criterion Channel categorizes The Comfort of Strangers as an "erotic thriller," but I would instead describe it as a sensual drama. With the exception of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it is director Paul Schrader’s most visually stylish film. His camera glides along like a disembodied spirit, stalking through dark alleyways and lavishly furnished apartments as though haunting the spaces it inhabits. Composer Antonio Badalamenti’s score likewise soars, evocative and ethereal. And cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s giallo-flavored lighting lends the ominous architecture depth, dimension, and texture. The imagery and sound design perfectly complement the tone—simultaneously beautiful and foreboding.

Structurally, the movie is also a tragedy. As I watched it, I was reminded of a quote from Ari Aster’s Hereditary:

[Heracles] thinks he has control. But let's all remember: Sophocles wrote the oracle so that it was unconditional. Meaning Heracles never had any choice. Right? So, does this make it more tragic or less tragic than if he did have a choice?

From the moment they enter the narrative, The Comfort of Strangers’ hapless protagonists—an English couple on holiday in a last desperate effort to rekindle their romance—are doomed. They blindly, aimlessly wander the labyrinthine streets of Venice, blundering into dead ends, penned in by a network of crisscrossing canals—all the while oblivious to the fact that they are being led to the slaughter by a stealthy, enigmatic predator. By the time the cunning malefactor (played by Christopher Walken, who is equal parts charismatic and intimidating) has sprung his trap, they’ve had ample opportunity to escape—indeed, they even discussed rescheduling their flight home in an earlier scene—but they remain blissfully unaware of the peril until their final, fatal mistake.

If only the audience had the luxury of such ignorance! The inevitability of characters’ fate is evident from the very first frame. We pray for some miracle to avert the impending disaster; the urge to shout warnings at the screen is almost irresistible. Alas, our efforts are in vain; the gate has been checked, the picture locked.

Never has dramatic irony been so torturously, deliciously suspenseful.

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