08 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 4, The Comfort of Strangers, by Harold Pinter

(key speech starts around the 3:50 mark)

I saw The Comfort of Strangers not long after it came out, on cable. It impressed me then as overripe kitsch. But I have this anthology of Harold Pinter screenplays, and he is some kind of genius, so I thought I'd check out the script.
     This is another one in a long line of stories about the bad shit that happens to northerners when they visit Venice (see Death in Venice, Don't Look Now, etc.)
     It's successful at creating an atmosphere of dread and anxiety. Even on the page, it's amazing how effective it is to throw in random giggles, allusions to sexual perversions, suggestions of intense psychological damage delivered elliptically. It does freak you out, even reading it, let alone seeing it on a screen with ominous sounds, angles, colors and so on. Pinter takes these elements from the novel, and builds on them. He throws in some very Pinter-esque exchanges, hanging on repetition and indirection, that sense of menace that he can create so skillfully.
     But, in the end, this is still over-decorated trash.
Ian McEwan went on to write some brilliant novels, especially Atonement. But this is some sort of self-conscious attempt at Gothic scarefest.
     Pinter can put his spin on it, and, atmospherically, it works. Stares. Giggles. Gigli on the soundtrack.
But most of us wouldn't stick around if some stranger spouted off an incredibly deranged story about his childhood and then punched us in the stomach. You could argue that it reveals some incipient masochistic urge, and maybe that would be right, but it just doesn't work for me. You're in love. You're with Natasha Richardson, who is very sexy and hot for you. Then some guy who owns a gay bar and has a sexy but clearly disturbed wife is suddenly very, very friendly with you. Personally, I'd get on the next vaporetto to London, or at least stay the hell away.
     I mean, yeah, maybe you're in fact a dom or sub and you're irresistibly drawn to this facet of sexual experience. Or maybe you're just a pawn of some plot and genre that demands this of you. Except for two arresting speeches that come out of the blue, we don’t really see that aspect of the couple's life surfaced.
Anyway, a preposterous update of the wicked Italian archetype, no matter how you cut it.
     Also, in the movie, I couldn't get around Rupert Everett being some irresistible sex object. Maybe if it had been someone like Terence Stamp. On the page, "Colin" is persuasive, but the role requires the right actor to work, and Everett wasn't it.
     What I learned:
  • Seemingly random elements, combined can add up to an effective mood, just as in poetry.
  • You can't rely on an actor's charisma or presence to make up for a flawed premise or incomplete character development
  • Genre shit remains genre shit, even when transmuted by a writer of genius.

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