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.”
“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.”
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