1 Hr., 47 Mins.
The Comfort of Strangers June 25, 2020
he Comfort of Strangers (1990) has the consistency of a dream that curdles into a nightmare. I think it becomes a better movie if you avoid trying to imbue it with very much logic (ultimately it doesn’t have much) and instead believe that none of what we see is actually happening. The movie, atmospherically directed by Paul Schrader, is based on a 1981 novel by Ian McEwan. It’s about a fashionable, sexy
young British couple, Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson), vacationing in Venice. They’re seeking to reignite the passion of their relationship; this is the second time they’ve come here. They’re also trying to answer the “what are we” question for good this time. Mary, an actress who has a couple of kids from a previous relationship, would like to marry Colin, but Colin still has a hard time giving a straight answer when Mary asks him if he likes children.
Early on in “The Comfort of Strangers,” we get the sense that by the end of the trip, the days of Mary and Colin, which have lasted seven years, could go kaput. When Mary muses after touring a landmark that she found it “incredible,” Colin rolls his eyes, noting that she said that the last time. In more than a couple of instances, Mary will be so physically and emotionally enervated that she’ll suggest that she and Colin go home prematurely. It appears to us that this is more of a work than leisure trip. But we invest in the relationship because it seems like something has stalled rather than completely petered out; that, with the reignition sought, a new spark could give way to a flame.
One night, while roaming the maze-like Venetian streets, Colin and Mary get lost. They’re approached by a stranger in a dandyish white suit, Robert (Christopher Walken), who takes them to a restaurant he owns a few doors down. Robert’s odd — most of the conversation consists of him monologuing about his dysfunctional family (particularly his father, who “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”). But the strange encounter has a sort of rejuvenating effect on Mary and Colin, the way a peculiar shared experience can in some ways foster a new closeness.
This will not, however, be the last time Colin and Mary see Robert; in a few days, they will be over at his palatial palazzo where he lives with his eccentric wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), for dinner. Such encounters might be innocuous if we didn’t hear alarm bells going off simultaneously. Before the dinner starts, Colin and Mary wake up in one of the villa’s beds (they aren’t quite sure how they got there) with all of their clothing missing. When they descend into the living room, Caroline confesses that while Colin and Mary were sleeping, she washed and dried their stuff and then locked them in the bathroom cabinet. She also “couldn’t help herself” from watching them sleep for 45 minutes or so. Then, after dinner, when Colin and Robert have a moment alone, the latter punches the former in the stomach for no reason.
Colin and Mary and these Venetian odd birds keep separating, yet they keep coming back into each other’s paths. It’s clear, almost from the time we meet Robert, that this transitory friendship is not to be trusted, and will probably end badly. But we aren’t quite sure how either idea, both of which seem inexorable (and are), will end up. The movie is so languid and dreamy that these meet-ups come with stark unreality. Robert and Caroline, undoubtedly predators in some form, could suddenly start speaking backward, like one of the people trapped in “Twin Peaks”’ (1989-1990) Black Lodge, and we might not blink.
The freaky finale seems like it might be wanting to uphold how scary a thing fate’s unknowability can be, and the way acts of violence can take hold of and then destroy someone’s life almost at random. But Schrader’s direction is so phantasmagorical (Venice has never looked so carnal, vaguely claustrophobic) that we watch its final, horrifying cathartic act and it’s like we’re not supposed to really take in its reality. It seems more in line with a pivotal moment in a dream — our teeth falling out, our falling off a cliff, our needing to run away from a hunter of some kind but finding that our limbs are unwilling to move.
I abhor it in movies when, at its end, a character wakes up, relieved to confirm to themselves and us that everything we’ve just seen was a dream. Yet if such an epilogue were capped on “The Comfort of Strangers,” we might find comfort in knowing that we now have a foot in the door that leads us to a somewhat conclusive interpretation. Teeth falling out in a nap might signify a fear of a major life change. Could the ending of “The Comfort of Strangers” mean something similar for Colin and Mary, in the context of deep slumber? This is more than likely an overreach. But I was so viscerally intrigued by the movie that I would rather overreach and grab something tangible — even if that tangible something is a little silly — because I fear that if I didn’t, I would be grabbing onto nothing. A-