The Comfort of Strangers Review
The BFI’s release of The Comfort of Strangers couldn’t be more timely as 2018 has seen its director, Paul Schrader, return to the cinematic fray with First Reformed, not only his most impressive film in years, but perhaps even the best of a chequered career that has included the highs of Blue Collar (1978) and Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), as well as interesting misfires such as The Canyons (2013) and Dog Eat Dog (2016).
This, the director’s dreamily sinister 1990 film, is certainly up there with the pick of his canon, but isn’t quite straight-no-chaser Schrader, coming as it does with a screenplay not by the Taxi Driver scribe himself but the late Harold Pinter. Adapted from a novel by Ian McEwan, you’d imagine a combination of three such diverse authorial voices might make for a messy result, but the film is instead a winning combination of sharp dialogue, opulent visuals and an oppressive, discomfiting atmosphere that gets under your skin in its early moments and refuses to budge. It’s an oblique, at times even baffling piece of work, whose ending left me genuinely shaken (its setting isn’t the only thing the film shares with Nic Roeg’s 1973 chiller, Don’t Look Now).
The Comfort of Strangers sees two well-to-do Brits – Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) – visiting Venice in a bid to save their ailing relationship. Early on, it becomes clear they are being watched and secretly photographed, and it isn’t long before their stalker introduces himself. Robert (Christopher Walken) is a creepy local businessman and, after getting the pair drunk in his bar, takes them to the sumptuous apartment he shares with his wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren). Their encounter with the couple is erotic and flirtatious, but also threatening and disturbing. Somehow, it provides the rocket fuel Mary and Colin need to rekindle their passion, but Robert and Caroline aren’t yet done with them…
Visually there is a lot going on here. Schrader’s camera never stops moving, whether its prowling down Venice’s narrow nooks and winding ginnels like a big cat stalking its prey, padding around Robert and Caroline’s huge but oddly claustrophobic apartment, or voyeuristically eyeing Colin and Mary as they lay naked and sleeping. It makes you feel uneasy – and deliberately so. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti makes the most of the film’s elegant Venetian setting, and its production design and costuming (courtesy of Giorgio Armani) are immaculate. One of the film’s big themes is “dangerous beauty” and every visual cue – every deep orange hue, every enigmatic facial expression – is put to work in the service of that simple but powerful idea.
Walken is at his absolute reptilian peak as Robert; one moment charm personified, as he inveigles his way into Colin and Mary’s plans, the next recounting an inappropriate story (that comes up several times) about his father and four sisters, and later aggressively railing against “communist poofs”. Permanently besuited, he is a strange and volatile man, weirdly fixated on his father and grandfather, whose possessions he displays in his home as if they were precious treasures.
The Comfort of Strangers was made in the dog days of the Thatcher government and I imagine socialist Pinter meant him to embody the soulless amorality and wanton perversity of the filthy rich. We certainly see a little of his malevolent charisma infect Mary and Colin, who Richardson and Everett essay with just the right combination of English stuffiness and repressed sexuality. The former, who passed away at the age of 45 in 2009, is particularly effective here and Schrader’s camera clearly adores her.
This is a dual-format package, with the film remastered in gorgeous HD to mark the first time it has been available on Blu-ray in the UK. Schrader-centric extras include an entertaining, insightful new commentary from the director, in which he touchingly laments the fact he never got to record it with Richardson and Pinter. He also reveals how Walken initially struggled in a role originally intended for Al Pacino. Additionally, there’s a lengthy and wide-ranging interview he gave to The Guardian in 1993, and an exhaustive lecture from 1982, based on a film course Schrader had presented in the US. Three short films about Venice, a theatrical trailer, and 30+ page booklet containing new writing about The Comfort of Strangers provide the cherry on top of an impressive set.