The Comfort of Strangers June 29, 2020
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
he Comfort of Strangers (1990) is sort of like a dream that turns 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 long-term
relationship. This is the second time they’ve come here; they’re trying to answer the “what are we” question for good this time. Mary is an actress who has a couple of kids from a previous relationship. She 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, will be over. When Mary muses after touring a landmark that she found it “incredible,” Colin rolls his eyes and notes 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. Eventually, they're approached by a stranger in a dandyish white suit named Robert (Christopher Walken). He takes them to a restaurant he owns a few doors down and they sit down for drinks. Robert’s odd: Most of the conversation consists of him monologuing about his dysfunctional family. (He's particularly fixated on his father, whom he describes, in laborious detail, as "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 — in the way a peculiar shared experience can in some ways foster a new closeness.
This will not 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 just-as-eccentric wife, Caroline (Helen Mirren), for dinner. Such encounters might be innocuous if we didn’t hear subliminal 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 napping, she washed and dried their stuff and then locked the belongings in a bathroom cabinet. She also “couldn’t help herself” from watching them doze for 45 minutes or so. Then, after they've had a blandly polite dinner, Robert punches Colin in the stomach for no reason when they have a moment alone.
Colin and Mary and these Venetian odd birds keep separating and then continue to 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 languid and dreamy — these meet-ups have an undercurrent of 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 signals a desire 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 so often at random. But Schrader’s direction is so phantasmagorical (Venice has never seemed so carnal, vaguely claustrophobic — like you couldn't leave even if you tried) that we watch its final, horrifying cathartic act and it’s like we’re not supposed to really take it in. It feels more in line with a pivotal moment in a subconscious-prominent dream — our teeth falling out, our falling off a cliff, our needing to run away from a fuzzily defined hunter but finding that our limbs are unwilling to move.
I hate it in movies when at its end, a character wakes up and is relieved to confirm to themselves and us that everything terrible we’ve just seen was a nightmare. Yet if such an epilogue were screwed 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. Canines falling out in a dream state might signify anxiety over a major life change. Could the ending of The Comfort of Strangers mean something similar, here relating to Colin and Mary's relationship woes, in the context of a deep sleep? This is more than likely an overreach. But I was so viscerally grabbed by the movie that I would rather overreach and get a hold of something semi-tangible — even if that tangible something is a little silly — because I fear that if I didn’t, I'd be holding on to nothing. A