A sensuous exploration of amorous discontent and dreadful miscalculation, The Comfort of Strangers (1990) could be described as an erotic thriller, though it rarely is: its eroticism is too perverse, its pedigree too highbrow. Directed by Paul Schrader and based on Ian McEwan’s concise 1981 novel of the same title, it charts the brief but increasingly intense relationship between two couples, the unmarried Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) and the older, long-wed Robert and Caroline (Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren). They meet while Mary and Colin are vacationing in Venice, and to say that it does not end well for everyone is an understatement, though the buildup is sufficiently deliberate that anyone expecting an entertainment along the lines of either the glossy Basic Instinct (1992) or the gory grindhouse shocker Giallo in Venice (1979)—as The Comfort of Strangers initially might seem to promise—is likely to lose patience.
The underlying menace is subtle. Colin and Mary are self-involved and preoccupied with relationship issues—less hormonal dramas than the life-adjusting choices couples confront when there are children and exes in the mix. What is, in retrospect, their one false move is rendered as a reasonable choice, yet its consequences are disproportionately dire. Beneath its velvet elegance, Schrader’s film packs a brutal punch. The script—by playwright, screenwriter, and eventual Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter—hews closely to McEwan’s spare and discomfiting novel, but its rhythms are thoroughly Pinteresque. Pinter’s reputation rests largely on the fact that his texts, among them plays such as The Birthday Party (1958) and Betrayal (1978), truly reveal their unique, queasy power only when spoken aloud. Walken—whose eccentric phrasing, built on unexpected pauses and line readings whose rhythms are wholly unpredictable and yet perfectly paced—may be the greatest Pinterian actor who has never appeared in a Pinter play.
“No less than many of Schrader’s films as a writer-director, The Comfort of Strangers grapples with self-destructive temptations and the always fraught intersection of flesh and spirit.”
The script preceded Schrader’s signing on to the project, and it’s no wonder why the director was attracted to the material. Though now generally included among the ranks of the seventies young guns Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, for the last of whom he wrote or cowrote four screenplays, Schrader wasn’t a movie kid: the product of a deeply religious upbringing, he was eighteen when he saw his first film. He began his career as a film critic, publishing Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer in 1972, two years before the opening of The Yakuza (his first produced screenplay, directed by Sydney Pollack) and six years before his directorial debut, Blue Collar. No less than many of Schrader’s films as a writer-director, among them American Gigolo (1980) and First Reformed (2017), The Comfort of Strangers grapples with self-destructive temptations and the always fraught intersection of flesh and spirit.
The novel’s narrative at first appears familiar—a dramatic parsing of the accumulation of tiny slights, fleeting moments of thoughtlessness, and petty stressors that finally forces lovers to reconsider the nature and strength of their bond. That The Comfort of Strangers turns out to be something else troubled many reviewers of both the novel and the film, and its conclusion, while startling, is inevitable, making the story a malevolent and sexually charged variation on Alice in Wonderland.
The film opens with a languid series of pans through an elegantly appointed apartment, empty save for a briefly glimpsed woman, draped in a flowing caftan. The ceilings are figured with a repeating pattern of geometric reliefs; the walls intricately stenciled and hung with paintings and oxidized mirrors; the rooms filled with sculpture and heavy, burled-wood furniture, fringed carpets, doorways topped with gilded arches. The weathered opulence is soon underscored by enigmatic narration delivered by Walken: “My father was a very big man. All his life he wore a black mustache. When it turned gray, he used a little brush to keep it black, such as ladies use for their eyes. Mascara. Everyone was afraid of him . . . But he loved me. I was his favorite.”
On that faintly ominous note, Mary and Colin—an attractive English couple who have been together for years—are introduced as they enjoy their second trip to Venice. Though the novel never names the city where the story takes place, it is clearly La Serenissima, as it is in the film—“the most serene” of Italian cities and widely accounted one of the most hauntingly beautiful. Venice is inherently mysterious, a floating city whose boulevards are canals and whose cross streets feed into bridges. But though undeniably romantic, Venice’s reputation also encompasses decay, pestilence, and decadence. Films like Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973)—based, respectively, on a Thomas Mann novella and a short story by Daphne du Maurier—are immersed in the city’s darker associations. The Comfort of Strangers similarly portrays Venice in a shadowy light: the flute-and-string-driven score by Angelo Badalamenti reflects a delicate exoticism touched with eeriness; it’s an understated reminder that Venice is a city like no other, at once dreamlike and mundane.
As for the central couple, Colin is languid, acerbic, and supercilious in the manner of H. H. “Saki” Munro’s sharp-tongued young men-about-town Clovis and Reginald, which is to say pretty, witty, and something of a bitch. Mary is wholesomely attractive, divorced, and a mother of two (both safely home with her own mother), still as outgoing and unabashed in her enthusiasms as a schoolgirl; you can imagine her as a cheerful student, up for a bit of mischief but mindful of her grades. Perhaps that’s the root of her spark of toughness, first seen when she and Colin pass a poster produced by a radical feminist collective that advocates castrating convicted rapists. Mary—who understands Italian, whereas Colin does not—is on board, at least in theory.
The Comfort of Strangers is grounded in the stories couples tell themselves and others. Colin and Mary narrate through action: they’re trying to rekindle a romantic spark dulled by routine and responsibilities by treating themselves to boat rides and beach trips; visits to restaurants and piazzas; and long, aimless walks through streets equally likely to reach dead ends and delightful surprises. They don’t bicker, but there’s an undercurrent of muffled discontent from the start: Mary misses her children, and Colin clearly gives them little thought unless she brings them up. When they visit a nearby church, she declares it “incredible” and he waspishly replies, “You thought that the last time,” though he later agrees that the edifice is, indeed, marvelous.
“Venice’s sheer loveliness seems to negate the possibility that anything bad could happen there. Even by night, Dante Spinotti’s photography helps create an aura of mystery rather than menace.”
And it is: Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti captures the beautifully weathered ochers and brick reds of the centuries-old buildings that face and open onto the Grand Canal, sun-washed against a brilliantly blue sky—Venice’s sheer loveliness seems to negate the possibility that anything bad could happen there. Even by night, Spinotti’s photography helps create an aura of mystery rather than menace, registering the uncanniness of a high-end furniture store whose display window bathes a side street in dramatic blue, and the passing squalor of graffiti-defaced walls.
That mystery begins to deepen once Robert enters the picture. Colin first catches a glimpse of him outside the aforementioned church—though he does not see, as we do, the man again moments later, framed in an arched doorway like a pale angel in a chapel niche as he surreptitiously photographs Colin. Then late one night, after the couple have become lost trying to find a bar recommended by their hotel concierge, they finally meet Robert. Polite and well-dressed, he speaks excellent English, though he insists it should be better—his father was a diplomat posted to London, and Robert was raised there. His offer to take them to a place he guarantees is still open, and where they can enjoy some “beautiful Venetian food,” is irresistible, though the reality turns out to be otherwise: the cook is out sick, and in any event the place looks less like a restaurant than a gay bar.
As in the novel, what could seem an act of recklessness is couched in terms of circumstances that seem to justify a small risk. Colin and Mary’s apparent savior, after all, is older, and their self-confidence, coupled with Mary’s desire to see “the real Venice”—the holy grail of people who see themselves as experienced travelers rather than tourists—seals the deal. The possibility that they’ve made a ghastly mistake seems remote, even as Colin and Mary drink too much wine—“full of nourishment,” Robert advises, like a parent. By the time Mary and Colin escape, they’re so drunkenly exhausted that they wind up sleeping next to a canal.
The morning-after scene that follows is one of Everett’s best. After Mary wonders aloud why they came back to Venice, then answers her own question—they’re there to sort out their situation—he fidgets slightly and examines his hands, reluctant to reply. Even before he speaks, it’s clear that his answer is the wrong one: Mary wants commitment, and Colin is fine with things the way they are—he doesn’t want to leave but doesn’t want to feel pressured to stay. Richardson is equally strong here, as she is throughout the film; through her, Mary is never the one-note character she could have been—the pill, the one whose feet hurt, who is bitten by bugs, impatient with waiters and telephone operators. She has a womanly self-awareness that contrasts sharply with Colin’s determined boyishness.
As Mary and Colin soon find themselves drawn further into Robert’s world—later that morning, he comes across them once again, and insists that they come to his home by water taxi—it’s hard not to think of Roeg and Donald Cammell’s 1970 Performance and the stranger who stumbles into a baroque pleasure palace that, while smack in the middle of London, is its own self-contained realm, suffused with a couple’s peculiar, exotic energy, a place where conventional rules don’t apply. When Mary and Colin take a rest in the lavish apartment and awaken with their clothes nowhere to be found, the explanation seems reasonable—Robert’s wife, Caroline, took their sweaty, soiled garments and washed them—if overfamiliar. Colin and Mary are persuaded to stay for dinner and get separate, unsettling glimpses of their hosts’ personal dynamics. Robert shares his contempt for the notion of gender equality; the objects that make up his curious tabletop tribute to his patriarchal forebears—opera glasses, a clothing brush and shoehorn, a riding crop, wire-framed spectacles posed in their open case—are artful, curated to evoke a particular notion of masculinity, and sharing them with Colin is a subtle test, accompanied by a lecture pregnant with Pinter pauses: “My father and my grandfather understood themselves clearly. They were men . . . and they were proud of their sex . . . Women understood them too . . . Now women treat men like children because they can’t take them seriously. But men like my father . . . and grandfather . . . they took very seriously.”
It’s a test that Colin fails, his punishment a sucker punch followed by polite assistance in regaining his feet. Mary’s lesson about the nature of gender roles is gentler but equally disconcerting, since it is preceded by Caroline’s admission that she spied on them as they slept. But Caroline’s definition of love—“you’d do absolutely anything for the other person, and you’d let them do absolutely anything to you”—combined with her apparent physical disability, hints at sexual abuse, and the evening ends with her whispered plea for help escaping.
And yet, later on, Mary and Colin are drawn into the other couple’s domain a second time, in part for that most English of reasons—it would be rude to walk away when Caroline has spotted them from the balcony and is beckoning them to come up—but also because Robert and Caroline seem to embody the allure of Venice: worldly and inscrutable, ensconced in an enormous apartment filled with art, antiques, and books. And perhaps Colin and Mary are mesmerized by a couple who met as children and whose lives remain intensely intertwined, however peculiar their notions of passion, freedom, fulfillment, and commitment may seem from a generation’s remove. By the time it becomes clear they’re 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.
The Comfort of Strangers is a sly examination of the nature of storytelling, filtered through the complementary sensibilities of three storytellers. McEwan’s novel supplies the story and the two couples, as well as most of the movie’s dialogue. But Pinter focuses that dialogue—distilling the underlying tensions between Mary and Colin in conversations about their mutual commitment and their queasy fascination with Robert and Caroline. The older pair awaken a spark of delightfully naughty perversity that jump-starts libidos grown somnolent with Colin and Mary’s settling into contented coupledom, a pleasure potent enough that they ignore the intimations of unease to spin sexual-fantasy tales for each other’s amusement. After all, they’re on holiday and want to enjoy their respite from real life. Finally, it is Schrader who stalks them through darkened streets and frames them in windows and doorways, bringing home the fact that even when they aren’t literally lost, they’re unmoored and vulnerable.
The film could be read simply as a tart riposte to Blanche DuBois’s declaration that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers,” or the biblical directive to “show hospitality to strangers” because they might be undercover angels—a vindication of warnings about stranger danger. But it is more pleasurably experienced as a modern fairy tale in which winding streets and interchangeable alleys become the dark woods where incautious travelers may easily go astray. Its lesson is that wolves can hide behind friendly facades and malevolence behind genteel manners, that enchanting homes may shelter monsters, and that pretty young people should keep their wits about them, especially when they’re on holiday.