Harold Pinter Festival
The Spaces Between the Words: A Tribute to Harold Pinter
A Kind of Alaska
At the climax of the 1990 Paul Schrader film The Comfort of Strangers, a young Englishwoman is forced to witness the murder of her lover. The attractive young couple, Mary and Colin (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett), are in Venice for a restful, sexy change of scenery. One evening, after getting lost while looking for a restaurant, they encounter Robert, a wealthy local who scoops them up and takes them to dinner at his favorite out-of-the-way eatery, where he laughingly plies them with drink and tells them a lot of weirdly inappropriate stories about his private life. Most people, of course, would take the first decent opportunity to flee at the sight of Christopher Walken in a white suit, even if he weren’t always repeating lines that, like Robert himself, are ostensibly harmless yet somehow deeply sinister. (“My father was a very big man.”) But part of the film’s macabre joke is that Mary and Robert are English, and hence diffident and accommodating to the point of self-destructiveness; more important, they’re characters in a film written by Harold Pinter, in whose work everyday situations often devolve, with the irreversible momentum of nightmares, into horror. And so the couple get more and more involved with Robert and his equally unsettling, if overtly more sympathetic, wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), who moves around their opulent palazzo gingerly clutching various body parts in pain, as if she’s just been beaten. She probably has.
The younger couple continue to socialize with their older, worldly counterparts, despite the unwholesome vibes that Robert and Caroline are giving off, and despite certain other incidents, for instance the moment, fairly early on in their joint socializing, when Robert suddenly punches Colin in the gut, viciously but smilingly, as if merely checking to see how the handsome young man would react. Then, just as Mary and Robert begin to pull away from their hosts, the bizarre and yet somehow logical climax: while paying a goodbye visit to Caroline, Mary is given a drug that renders her immobile and speechless, and as she sits in her hostess’s sumptuous salon, making inarticulate noises and rolling her eyes in an attempt to warn him, Colin is brought in, like some kind of sacrificial victim, and Robert slashes his throat before her wide and terrified eyes.
Even if the story isn’t by Pinter—the film was adapted from a 1981 novel by Ian McEwan—The Comfort of Strangers is emblematic of the British playwright’s work in a number of ways. The darkness lurking under vacuous everyday exchanges; the oppressive sense of impending disaster haunting a quotidian scene (going to a restaurant, say, or sightseeing); sudden and apparently unmotivated acts of violence; relationships between sadistically bullying men and passive, helpless women; the unsettling feeling that some larger, explanatory narrative has been repressed or stripped away, leaving behind the discrete, apparently unrelated actions and the flatly conventional talk; the way in which that talk can become terribly menacing: all …