The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

Directed by Paul Schrader; Written by Harold Pinter

Hedonistic in its excess and unnerving in its reticence, The Comfort of Strangers mixes bourgeois concerns with mysticism, eroticism and a dash of fascism just to twist your ear. A witch’s brew served with perhaps too much zeal at times. 

It stars Natascha Richardson and Rupert Everett as Colin and Mary, an English couple who’ve returned to Venice for a getaway to try and rekindle a flickering relationship. They’re not married. She has two children from a previous relationship, he’s withdrawn on the subject. They sleep in separate single beds, backs turned, and conversations are smalltalk until they turn combative. Times are not what they were.

Then, a stranger appears. A man, clad in a white suit, a camera slung over his shoulder, stepping out from the shadows from where he’s been watching the two clipped lovebirds. He promises to take them someplace, and as a couple looking for something like that, they agree. This man, who introduces himself as Robert, is enigmatic, charismatic, effusive in his tastes and opinions. While off-putting in his comments, the couple can’t seem to wriggle free of him in the days following as he appears in alleyways and plazas as if he melts out of the cobblestone, the city come alive. 

He brings them home, and there they meet his wife, a meek but covetous woman, who makes no secret of her attraction to both Mary and particularly, Colin. As odd as this all seems, Mary and Colin’s sense of propriety, civility and garden variety good manners won’t let them run for the hills. How they’d wish they’d done so. 

The Comfort of Strangers is sexy, eery and ultimately unsettling, as what’s supposed to be a romantic interlude turns into traumatized yelp followed by silence. The horrific turn begins with an unheimlich Venice. 

Strangers we meet while abroad have a different quality than those we encounter at home. Here, everything’s out of context, as you’re already taking in a strange land, customs and culture. You’re wrong-footed, caught up in the swell of things, and what would normally set you on edge is easier to go along with, because in some ways, you don’t know any better.

Much work goes on behind the camera to drape Venice in this otherworldliness. Angelo Badalamenti’s score feels like it belongs among the dunes of the Middle East. A harp plucks just above a sweeping orchestral score that lures you in before it gives way to a breathy flute and slap drum percussion that leaves you wondering if you’re still in one of Europe’s oldest civilisations. 

Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is similarly alien, casting Venice’s iconic architecture in a burning red and lovers’ beds in ultramarine blue. It’s a fever dream of sorts, how the current and an otherworldly past blend together here, and it’s only right this place should be tormented by an outsized villain.  

As a dark handsome stranger Robert is just that. Christopher Walken lays it on thick as this debonair man of the world, an Italian educated in England who now overlooks Venice from a splendorous apartment that feels fit for old Italian nobility. Old artworks line the walls, plush couches invite you, and small trinkets of his father lay out on display like their own archeological offering.  

Yet, he eschews misogynist opinions, suggests homosexuaity should be punished by death and institutionalized by the government, which upsets our English protagonists, yet they find it hard to refuse the overwhelming hospitality of this man. As dominating a figure as he is, his mousey wife in the guise of Helen Mirren poses a different unsettling figure, eyeing her guests with gluttonous intensity, almost clamoring to express her overwhelming attraction. 

The creative skeleton is solid: based on Ian McEwan’s novel, Pinter’s script is full of theatricality, and Schrader doesn’t disappoint in how he juggles the mysticism of this weird foursome and the harsh earthbound behaviors that unfold. Coupled with Badalamenti’s music and Spinotti’s camera, it’s easy to be seduced by The Comfort of Strangers and its heady song.

Where the film wavers is in some of its performances. Rupert Everett is handsome, in an old Hollywood kind of way, and it’s almost a shame he was born decades later to instead star in color and in films requiring more than smoldering looks and a pouty lip. He whispers his way through the length of The Comfort of Strangers barely emoting, a limp cod flopping into the gondola. 

An opposite dilemma exists in the guise of Walken’s Robert. I’ll say this: I like Christopher Walken. He can be both a devilish trickster and man of integrity. Someone like Roberto calls for someone with Walken’s gravitas and unpredictability, but Walken, with his now-famous mannerisms, finds it hard to hide. He’s larger than life here, and his dubious accent is somehow neither Italian or English, as he just strikes out for something vague and foreign-sounding. If you’re fine with Walken mixing sophistication and machismo and swinging for the fences, The Comfort of Strangers is an Italian chef’s kiss. If you’re put off by the star wattage, however… 

Schrader almost casts an enchantment with The Comfort of Strangers, leading you down a dark alley where a pretty song is playing. Once you’re there, however, the company you’ll meet, and your opinion of them, is what will decide whether it’s a night to remember or to regret and forget. 

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