The Comfort of Strangers
1990, R, 107 min. Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 17, 1991
Sex and rot and death in Venice. In this ironically titled film, Schrader casts his austere gaze on sensuality, seduction, repulsion, and desire. With a script by Harold Pinter, adapted from a novella by Ian McEwan, the story is a perverse little sado-masochistic drama. Colin (Everett) and Mary (Richardson) are an English couple away on holiday in Venice with the purpose of reaching some kind of decision about the continuance of their relationship. One evening while looking for a place to dine, they encounter Robert (Walken) who takes them to his bar, plys them with wine and tells them revealing tales of his childhood. Too drunk to find their way back to their hotel through the convoluted alleyways of Venice, Colin and Mary sleep in the street and are "found" by Robert the next day and whisked back to his palatial villa. The couple sleeps the entire day and they awake to discover their clothes missing. They also meet Robert's wife Caroline (Mirren), an odd character who seems both sexually masochistic yet somehow in control of her and her husband's erotic game plan (which by now is becoming more evidently kinky and unsavory to Colin and Mary). Later they find themselves inexplicably back at the older couple's villa, drawn to their destinies like moths to flames. At the root, the story is rather trashy. What has going for it is its graceful construction: the seductive glide of the camerawork, the thematic arousals and their coy ambiguities, the magnificent cast who turn in what could have been an overly schematic parlor game into a flesh and blood drama. After being abused and locked in a closet for so much of Schrader's fascinating Patty Hearst, Richardson here gets her due as this story's emotional and moral center. Walken here outdoes even himself, with his perfectly tailored Armani suits and weird multi-tongued accent, leaving all his other whacked out characters behind like shadows in the dust. Yet this film is unlikely to convert anyone not already convinced of Schrader's unique storytelling talents. Something about The Comfort of Strangers remains aloof, creating a physical and emotional distance between its characters and its audience. Some of that is, no doubt, Pinter's script. But Schrader pinpoints a nucleus of moral decay and then observes it with a detached clinician's eye rather than the eye if a rapt storyteller.