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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Paul Schrader Films
First Reformed
Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke burn in the divine for this meditation on faith.

Marc Savlov, May 25, 2018

The Walker
Woody Harrelson stars as a professional escort for political wives in this Paul Schrader movie about sex, murder, scandal, and adultery in Washington, D.C.

Josh Rosenblatt, Dec. 21, 2007

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Story of America's itinerant population wanders too much

Feb. 19, 2021

The Reason I Jump
Poetic insight into autism, based on Naoki Higashida memoir

Jan. 8, 2021


The Comfort of Strangers, Paul Schrader, Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle