The Comfort of Strangers

(Paul Schrader, Italy/USA, 1991)


The Comfort of Strangers promises a fabulous, alchemical meeting of diverse talents. Paul Schrader (Patty Hearst, 1988) directs an adaptation by playwright Harold Pinter of a celebrated novel by Ian McEwan, with Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren highlighting a superb ensemble cast.

The combination delivers. The Comfort of Strangers is a brooding, steely, ravishingly seductive film, one that lingers long in the memory. The viewer is drawn in and held in much the same fashion that the unassuming vacationers Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) are implicated in the bizarre plot laid for them by the deceptively genteel Robert (Walken) and Caroline (Mirren).

The setting is Venice, so often mythologised by writers and filmmakers as the supreme site of mystery and menace. Schrader conjures an even more fanciful, almost Byzantine Venice, a metaphysical labyrinth where restless lovers lose their way and discover truths about themselves they may never have wished to know.

Walken as Robert is the centre of the film, embodying its darkly brilliant charms. Like the hero of Schrader’s Mishima (1985), Robert perpetually invents himself through stories, masks, roles. Slowly we enter his fascinatingly psychotic head-space, as he publicly explores his latent homosexuality – yet does everything he can to violently deny it.

As a writer and director, Schrader has always focussed on such deadly paradoxes of the masculine condition. Yet The Comfort of Strangers belongs equally to Pinter, and just as faithfully reflects his particular style and obsessions.

On one level, Pinter’s world-view seems to have scarcely altered since his screenplay for The Servant (1963). His men are still spiffy, sullen, easily led astray; his women are still both alluring and threatening in their dark, unfathomable sexual desires. And everyone still converses using the same artfully shaped non sequiters, pauses and oddly significant banalities.

Where artists like Robert Bresson or even Larry Clark who handle bleak material might offer at least a little hope, Schrader and Pinter offer none. Theirs is a fatalistic and pitiless tale which will doubtless leave some viewers with an empty, sick feeling. Yet, if there is something a little evil about this film, at least it is magnificently evil. Like the greatest and most perverse horror movies, The Comfort of Strangers is a wicked feast.

MORE Schrader: Affliction, Auto Focus, Blue Collar, Touch, Light of Day

© Adrian Martin November 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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