The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Naive viewers who walk into the picture thinking it is yet another story of a beautiful couple on a European holiday are in for a vicious surprise in Paul Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers,” based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan and adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter, a thriller so carefully calibrated that the experience of watching it is like figuring out how to solve a Rubik’s cube. You think you know where it is heading but, just like the labyrinthine city of Venice, there are paths that may or may not lead anywhere. And because of this, the work is not for most audiences. It is, however, for those who crave intriguing character studies.
We look at the couple in front of us, and we are inspired to make numerous assumptions. It isn’t that the screenplay is opaque. On the contrary, it is so detailed and confident in regards to what it is really about that we entertain any and all possibilities. It is obvious that Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) are well-to-do, educated, and worldly. We get a feeling they’ve known each other for a long time. We feel they care for one another… but we question how deeply when the two don’t even share the same bed. Is this the only type of room or arrangement that’s available in the hotel?
Mary calls home, talking about missing her children. We look at Colin. We study his face. He looks disinterested, perhaps even exasperated with the fact that he and his lover are on vacation yet she keeps bringing up the fact that she misses her kids. So then we ask ourselves what exactly is the nature of Mary and Colin’s relationship. We see them in gorgeous Venice, but might the more interesting details be found in the home, back in England? I admired that the material is so rich, it inspires the viewer to consider alternatives, what we don’t see on screen, how the characters really are when not visiting a foreign country.
There are questions in regards to the central couple which is made more complex when they meet a man named Robert (Christopher Walken). Unbeknownst to Mary and Colin but known to us, Robert has been following them around the city and taking their pictures. Eventually, Robert slithers his way into their lives, regaling with them stories about his childhood, particularly how his father, whom he admires, ruled his family with an iron first. Walken is terrific as an enigma who employs his talent for storytelling in order to lower his listeners’ defenses. There is a darkness in Robert that I found to be alluring, which perfectly complements the light from his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren).
Caroline, too, is a mystery. A case can be made she is the more poisonous of the two considering her skill for detailing her vulnerabilities. I was excited by Mirren ability to talk and act a certain way, Caroline’s eyes always possess a curious hunger. What does she and her husband want from the British couple? Their beauty, their way of life, their passion? It’s really puzzling because I think what Robert and Caroline share is already an exaggeration of what Mary and Colin have—or seem to have. So they must want something else… Right?
Surface-level viewers will summon the word “perversity” to describe either the picture or the contents within. But I think “The Comfort of Strangers” is a portrait of an all-consuming passion, how it spills and causes a flood. And sometimes how it has the power to touch other people’s lives and infect them—which has its advantages and disadvantages. It is a not a reductive predator and prey story; I think it is a more nuanced work in that it is willing to show that monsters can possess humanity, too, and there is something about the insane—the extreme—that is enticing. Not only do I consider that message to be honest, I think it is brave.