The Comfort of Strangers plays out rather like an art-house version of the then-popular mainstream Hollywood (erotic) thriller sub-genre of the yuppies-in-peril, except it isn’t altogether clear to audiences just what peril our yuppie couple are facing, so abstract and shadowy is its approach. We know that Robert is a wrong ‘un (of course he is, he’s played by Christopher Freakin’ Walken!) and we know that he possesses an unsettling interest in Colin and Mary long before they do, as Schrader allows us to glimpse him in the distance surreptitiously following them down the cloistered shadowy backstreets of Venice. That Schrader chooses to set the film in Venice (McEwan’s novel hints at this setting but doesn’t ever stipulate) means we have echoes here of Don’t Look Now, and the half-glimpsed figure of the menacing Walken is as elusive and distinctive in his white suit as the dwarf in her bright red coat. Shot beautifully by Dante Spinotti, the strange and feverish, dreamlike Gothic atmosphere of the city and Pinter’s screenplay makes The Comfort of Strangers the ideal companion piece to Roeg’s earlier film.
Intriguingly, and despite their distaste for Robert’s character, it is the mystery and strangeness of the encounter that seems to reignite the flames of Colin and Mary’s passion. Like two innocent children in a fairy tale, the couple enter the elegant palazzo of Robert and Caroline and seem blind to the warning signs of the just out of reach risk they face, even when their clothes go missing and Caroline confesses to voyeurism, watching them as they slept. There’s something instantly off about their host’s seemingly gracious hospitality; there’s an amusing and deliberate Bechdel fail between Caroline and Mary as the latter recounts her work as an actress in an all-woman theatre group. Mirren’s submissive Caroline expresses bemusement, suggesting that the characters would be waiting for a man to arrive to allow any plot to finally develop – and the sexual implication to her words is all too clear as she concludes with a laugh. Meanwhile, the reptilian Robert begins to shed his social skin by asserting his alpha male authority at every opportunity; expressing admiration for Thatcher’s ruthless government policies, making homophobic remarks, ridiculing the feminist movement, and punching Colin in the stomach when they are alone. By the time Caroline reveals to Mary a secret room in which Robert has plastered photographs he has secretly taken of the couple during their stay in Venice all over the walls we know that their fate is sealed, but the ultimate motivation for such casual manipulation and sexual deviancy remains disturbingly elusive.
A beautiful but dark movie, The Comfort of Strangers is high-art horror with glorious set design from Gianni Quaranta, music from Twin Peaks‘ Angelo Badalamenti and the innate allure and unsettling intrigue of Venice itself. Schrader approaches the film at a creeping slow-burn pace, savouring each Pinter pause and gaining much from his cast. Walken is on fine form, delivering a British accent that approaches RP but is possessed with an odd, not-quite-right enunciation (check out how he pronounces ‘lavatory’ during his initial anecdote) that suggests both his character’s Italian roots and his inherent peculiarity. It is the anecdote from his childhood that is key to his character, commencing it with the words, “My father was a very big man. And he wore a black mustache. When he grew older and it grew gray, he colored it with a pencil. The kind women use. Mascara.” Initially, this seems fairly innocuous, but when he repeats it again in the film, the same exact words, in the same manner and with the same pauses, we realise he has, of course, learned it by rote; the words like an important, fetishistic mantra to him whose delivery ultimately highlights his chilling nature. Mirren delivers what is, on the surface at least, a passive, rather arrested development little girl performance, one that is just right for her character, whilst her Canadian accent is perhaps as much of a surprise to audiences as Walken’s British one. It’s impossible for this writer, and I expect audiences in general, to watch any performance of Natasha Richardson’s now and not feel it possesses some kind of tragic resonance, and this one is no exception. As Mary, she displays beauty, likeability, and practicality that makes her extremely sympathetic and identifiable, making the fate she sleepwalks towards all the more impactful. In contrast Rupert Everett’s Colin is less easy for us to get a handle on; equally as beautiful as Richardson with his chiselled male model looks, the film plays to the strengths of this handsome boy lost and in peril, more than it does getting under the skin of his character or connecting him emotionally with audiences. It would be easy to dismiss him as the film’s weak link, though perhaps unfair; the danger he faces is one that we ultimately – and quite literally – see from Mary’s perspective, which invests it with far greater emotional heft overall.
THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS IS OUT NOW ON BFI DVD & BLU-RAY