By Jeremy Carr.
Lingering apprehension goes on and on like some unyielding, if seemingly uneventful dream, which befits the film’s surreal and otherworldly constitution.”
Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) are two English tourists on holiday in Venice, and they’re hungry. The hotel concierge directs them to a nearby restaurant but they get lost along the way. Out of the shadows emerges a white-clad man named Robert (Christopher Walken). He takes them to a place he knows and, while the bar isn’t serving dinner, the trio settle in for wine and breadsticks. There’s some reticent small talk until Robert is asked about his past. He says that to know about his life means knowing about his father, so he launches into a methodical recollection about his childhood. There is tremendous weight in his monologue, in part due to Walken’s precise recital (with trademark pauses), in part due to the enigmatic relevance of the story, and in part due to the direction of Paul Schrader, who chooses to detach the camera from the table during the anecdote and instead surveys the other patrons with the soliloquy remaining pronounced on the soundtrack. Schrader acknowledges in an interview for the Criterion Collection that the speech, which is heard several times throughout The Comfort of Strangers, with the same cryptic significance, seems to be going somewhere but really goes nowhere.
For what feels like the longest time, the same could also be said of this unsettling 1990 thriller in general. Colin and Mary are unmarried and their vacation is primarily designed to resurrect their faltering relationship, which appears to be the film’s primary preoccupation. The two engage in continuous conversation without any concrete objective. Colin grumbles about his frustrations—with his acne, with an unreadable manuscript he’s been assigned to examine—while Mary expresses her concerns with Colin’s lack of interest in her two children back home in England. There are intervals of expositive dialogue, but the two seem to possess little knowledge about, or appreciation for, each other’s affairs. The exchanges are stifling and strained. “It’s like a prison here,” Mary says at one point, and she wants to go home. “I don’t know why we came here,” she laments, but she does know: “We thought we’d find out what to do … what to do about you and me.” They are at an impasse, and the film indicates as much as they continually talk away from each other in a perpetual disconnect that similarly incumbers The Comfort of Strangers’s narrative headway. Though there are moments of levity and romantic commitment, their language, as Schrader observes, reflects the inability to communicate and the incompatibility of men and women. This, he adds, is the result of the film’s authors: Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay, and Ian McEwan, whose 1981 novel was the source. The dialogue is deliberate, meandering, and, in Schrader’s words, “elliptical.”
But as disciplined and stylized as it is, the discourse doesn’t, on its own, make for the most engrossing film. There isn’t enough invested in Colin and Mary’s essential temperament to affirm a strong emotional connection. What offsets the tedium of their grievances, however, and lends the film a more durable curiosity, is the subtly integrated menace that advances in fits and starts, beginning with the discovery that the two are being watched and photographed by a faceless observer. Then there’s the furtive appearance of Robert. Elegant, polite, and intelligent, the British-Italian gentleman swiftly and unnervingly attaches himself to Colin and Mary, against their half-hearted better judgement. Eventually, he introduces the couple to his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), who manifests as mysteriously as he did. The quartet’s interactions are marked by ominous eroticism, dark humor, and tonal severity. Unlike the superficial intimacy explored in the passages between Colin and Mary, the nature of Robert’s relationship with Caroline is scarcely confirmed in any regard, but the suggestive disquiet developing between all four has an undeniable, underlying peril. Again, though, where this is all leading remains uncertain.
Despite what should be cautionary conversations concerning sexual standards, gender expectations, and manipulations of power, Colin and Mary are oddly trusting of the savvy Robert and his relentless inquiries. Even the extremely personal story about his childhood and his musings about a purified society leave them largely unphased. When they wake up in Robert’s lavish palazzo, sans clothing, Colin simply declares, “I must find out what’s going on,” and when Caroline confesses to having watched them as they slept, there is hardly any sense of alarm. Colin and Mary are too deferential for their own good, notably in the face of Robert’s prying questions and the barely suppressed, sometimes dramatically executed, antagonism. After Robert suddenly punches Colin in the gut, for example, and just winks, the younger man is clearly stunned and yet remains altogether affable.
Everett, who was just emerging as a dashing male lead, and Richardson, who had recently starred in Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988), are suitably reserved, attractive, and graciously naïve, and Mirren is as enticing as ever, slinking behind a veil of potential coercion (when she says she “can’t get out,” one wonders if it’s a reference to her back injury or a comment on Robert’s domestic sway). But the principal thrust of The Comfort of Strangers rests on Walken. Schrader, who originally considered Al Pacino for the part, recognized Walken’s “sinister” qualities and applied these attributes in the discomforting service of the film’s broad anxiety. As much as anywhere, this comes through in Robert’s recurrent youthful remembrance, which begins with a practiced tribute to his domineering father and ends with a humiliating prank enacted by his sisters. Like his father, Robert exudes fear and intimidation. He is challenging and abrasive and as part of his story suggests, he is consumed by possession. To this end, Schrader submits that Colin and Mary are seen as gifts given to Robert, offerings at his disposal. And now, the two unwitting guests are caught in a web of exotic intrigue that is slyly inscrutable and mesmerizing, shrewdly adding conflict and tension to a film that seemed to be on a path wholly devoid of such drama. But as Maitland McDonagh notes in her essay for Criterion, by the time it becomes clear Colin and Mary are in genuine danger, “it’s too late for them to escape Robert and Caroline’s private world, the one that exists ‘on the other side of the mirror,’ where pleasure is pain and pain is pleasure.”
This lingering apprehension goes on and on like some unyielding, if seemingly uneventful dream, which befits the film’s surreal and otherworldly constitution. The haunting music of Angelo Badalamenti provides an aural complement to the lush and atmospheric cinematography of Dante Spinotti, maintaining an aesthetic restlessness bolstered by Schrader’s evocative compositions. Spinotti, who is also interviewed on the Criterion disc (as are Walken, editor Bill Pankow, and, in archival conversations, McEwan and Richardson), wanted to avoid the picture postcard image of the distinctive Italian setting, preferring something dangerous and strange and attempting to capture “states of minds.” For his part, Schrader calls The Comfort of Strangers his “most aggressively directed film,” where he strove for a visual impact “image by image.” And from Robert’s opulent dwelling and Armani clothes to the fluid camera movements and vibrant scenes of charged lovemaking, the film is indeed a sensuous and seductive submission. It “could be described as an erotic thriller,” as McDonagh writes, “though it rarely is: its eroticism is too perverse, its pedigree too highbrow.”
While perhaps “highbrow” is unfair, with its overtones of arty exclusivity, the film does plunge into rather opaque realms of discontent and dread. Its icy mind games are bewildering and beguiling and casually unnerving. The buildup is frustrating in the moment, but when Schrader unleashes a confluence of psychosexual revelation and shocking violence, it becomes absolutely fascinating how The Comfort of Strangers achieves its potency in retrospect. So much seemed so irrelevant and unnecessary, but as the picture creeps in and settles, one is left to wonder how it ever seemed insipid or drawn out. The method is calculated and resoundingly effective. As Schrader rightly concludes, it’s “a very unique accomplishment.”
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).