By John H. Foote
(**) Criterion Blu Ray
I first saw this odd, creepy film when it was released in 1990, my wife and I coming away truly feeling creeped out, disliking the characters, but neither one of us could shake the film. We had planned to see it again, but it was out of cinemas within a week, so we waited for video. Living in a small town, the more eclectic films often did not find their way to our local video stores, so I never did get the chance to see it again, until now. Criterion made the haunting film one of their recent releases, and I have waited anxiously for the film.
Seeing it again was a reminder of how tremendously gifted an actor Christopher Walken can be given the right role.
Paul Schrader directed the film from a screenplay by Harold Pinter who adapted the short story to the screen.
Two lovers are vacationing in Venice, hoping to sort their issues out. They had been here four years ago and hoped the familiarity of the old city might rekindle their love. Colin (Rupert Everett) is a strikingly handsome young man, the sort of man even straight men call beautiful, the kind of man who people stop to look at. Mary (Natasha Richardson) is his lover, divorced with young children, an actress who worked for an all female theatre troupe that has recently disbanded. The couple walk the centuries old streets of Venice, seeking good food, good wine and enjoying museums and very old buildings. One night they become lost looking for a place to eat and meet by chance (they think), an elegant man dressed in a crisp white suit, Robert (Christopher Walken), who insists on escorting them to a bar he knows where they might be able to get some food. Bottle after bottle of wine arrives as Robert tells story after story about his bullying father and treacherous sisters. The evening finally ends as Robert leaves them to go home, not knowing that the couple will be sleeping in the street when Mary gets ill.
They awake the next day, dazed, hungry, exhausted and go looking for a place to eat before returning to the hotel. Oddly they encounter Robert, who is horrified to discover the young couple slept outside in the streets. He insists they return to his home with them to rest, and though they have misgivings, they find themselves unable to resist his aggressive, oddly sinister charm. As expected, his apartment is massive, opulent and spectacularly decorated with paintings and old tapestries. The couple sleep the day away, spied on by Caroline (Helen Mirren) who befriends Mary, talking to her about her terrible back.
Robert returns insisting they stay for dinner and takes Colin away to show him his fathers belongings. Without warning, seeming without provocation, Robert viciously slugs Colin in the stomach, catching him off guard, knocking the wind out of him. It foreshadows the sinister side of Robert we suspected had been there, hidden from view, just below the surface.
They do eat, they leave and as Robert and Caroline mysteriously pack their home, Colin and Mary return to horrific consequences.
Schrader does a brilliant job building dread throughout the film, as the camera glides through the old city, moving towards a terrible event. We know something is going to happen, and when it does, we are shocked, but not entirely. Robert has established himself as a predator, Caroline gives the secret away to Mary and when we see it, we are aware that the younger couple has been prey to both Robert and Caroline this entire time.
Walken is superb as Robert, the very dangerous, menacing man, who we learn has stalked Colin most of his time in Venice. Their encounter was never by chance. Walken has an innate ability to project danger in his roles, often done with charm as it is here. He could be smiling in your face as he eases the blade into you. Such a brilliant actor, though now often a caricature than character.
Caroline, portrayed with quiet complicity by the great Helen Mirren, pretends to know nothing, is subservient to Robert when in fact she is with him all the way. Their marriage was one of rough sex until that would not do anymore, so they escalated to something terribly dark.
Where the film has problems in in the bland portrayal of the younger couple, Colin and Mary. Colin might be impossibly handsome, but has a duller man ever existed? Punched in the stomach, a sucker punch at that, he does nothing. Nothing! Young, viral, well built guy and he does nothing? The poor character development here hurt Everett, but he did not seem able to bring much on his own to the character.
Natasha Richardson is interesting as Mary, but like Everett never draws us closer nor do we care much about her. Strikingly beautiful, she is of course the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, and was the wife of Liam Neeson, before tragically dying in a tragic ski accident.
Robert and Caroline, though both the personification of evil, are vastly more interesting.
The film had haunted me for years, primarily due to Walken, and I am pleased to have seen it again, but it just did not hold up. Stunning to look at, truly beautiful, but not much really going on, other than a slow, methodical build to dread and a horrible action that alters the futures of all the characters.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.