Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Harold Pinter (from Ian McEwan’s novel)
Starring: Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson, Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren
The Comfort of Strangers boasts an impressive line-up on both sides of the camera. Besides Schrader, whose credits include writer/director of the cult favourite Cat People (the remake, not the Val Lewton classic) and writer of the double-Oscar-winning Raging Bull, the film boasts a talismanic writer in Harold Pinter (working off an incisive, well-regarded novel by Ian McEwan), an opulent score by Angelo Badalamenti, the proverbial all-star cast—including Natasha Richardson, Helen Mirren from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and, most notably, Christopher Walken from The Deer Hunter—and the sumptuous setting of the palazzos and waterways of Venice.
The film opens with a rolling pan through a richly decorated Venetian apartment, more a museum than a home, accompanied by a somewhat macabre voice-over from an unknown man who will prove to be Walken’s Robert: “My father was a very big man. All his life he wore a black moustache. When it turned grey he used a little brush to keep it black, such as ladies use for their eyes—mascara.” The words seem disconnected from the accompanying images, but the way that Robert has been moulded by his father’s attitudes is crucial to understanding both him and the film.
The scene shifts to the Hotel Gabrielli and an English couple, Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson). They’re unmarried, they live apart, she has children from a previous relationship, and they’ve hit the trough of ennui and despondency that lies beyond many a couple’s honeymoon period. Colin and Mary have come to Venice to make or break their love. Judging by how they snipe at each other on a canal-side stroll, it isn’t going well. But other eyes are trained on the deadlocked English couple: a camera freezes them in mid-stride.
A man in a white suit, one hand stuck so firmly into his pocket that he might be playing with himself, emerges from a canal-side portico and watches the troubled lovers pass. He, too, will prove to be Robert.
The film builds to the now unavoidable meeting between the English couple and the man in the white suit. It occurs, late at night, when Colin and Mary get lost in Venice’s labyrinthine alleyways. They emerge into a small piazza, where Robert initially mistimes his appearance before pretending a chance encounter. He comes across as a kindly European aristocrat but Walken’s excellent portrayal gives Robert a disturbing sense of neediness.
Robert takes Colin and Mary to a café with a distinct whiff of the gay bar. Inside, Robert is well known; he plies Colin and Mary with wine and questions. Mary turns the tables by inquiring about their host. Robert prevaricates, saying he cannot answer without first describing his father: “My father was a very big man. All his life he wore a black moustache…” Colin and Mary don’t realise they are pawns in an elaborate game that stems, like Marcello’s desperate quest for normality in The Conformist, from Robert’s sense of sexual transgression against himself.
Colin and Mary don’t realise they are pawns in an elaborate game that stems, like Marcello’s desperate quest for normality in The Conformist, from Robert’s sense of sexual transgression against himself
Colin and Mary drink with Robert for hours. On their way home Mary vomits into a canal. They spend the rest of the night huddled in a passageway. Morning finds them at a café on a large piazza, their relationship at a new low. “This place is like a prison,” Mary laments, sensing the walls of Sexcatraz closing around her. Just as the festering sore of their mutual ambivalence threatens to burst irrevocably, who should roll up but Robert, still impeccably dressed in his white suit. Professing dismay at their rough night, he railroads the dispirited couple into resting at his apartment.
Colin and Mary wake up hours later in a plush four-poster, naked and magnificent as Roman gods. Mary stretches out, blissfully refreshed by sleep. Colin is more sanguine: their clothes have disappeared. Mary, in her revitalised state, is unperturbed, but Colin feels the weight of society’s entrenched shame around nudity and goes in search of vestments. He returns in a gauzy white robe: a mortal Apollo, the perfect embodiment of male beauty. It’s not obvious at the time but this is a crucial shot in The Comfort of Strangers.
Mary dons the robe and traipses through the apartment, where she meets Robert’s wife Caroline (Helen Mirren), who has washed and pressed their clothes. Caroline’s unorthodox sexuality is revealed by her confession that she watched—and clearly enjoyed watching—her naked guests sleep. Mary also learns that Robert owns the bar that she and Colin visited the previous night. It’s another small but significant piece of the puzzle artfully assembled by screenwriter Harold Pinter.
While Mary dresses for dinner and Caroline busies herself in the kitchen, Robert shows Colin the apartment, which—as the latter notes—is a memorial to Robert’s father. Robert responds with a well-rehearsed speech: “My father and his father understood themselves clearly; they were men and they were proud of their sex… Women took [them] very seriously. There was no uncertainty, no confusion.” Like the flashback to Marcello’s childhood in The Conformist, Robert’s speech reveals the source of his own sexual programming. “So, this is a museum dedicated to the good old days.” Boundary, violation and reaction… Robert cannot tolerate Colin’s disrespectful quip. His response is sudden and violent, and a portent; he fells Colin with a single blow to the midriff. His rage expelled, Robert is all bonhomie as he gets Colin into shape for dinner. Their sparring continues over the meal, with Robert subtly insinuating that Colin is bisexual. Much less subtly, he states that, “society has to be protected from perverts… put them all up against a wall and shoot them.” Robert’s sexual politics are emerging; it’s Marcello’s fascism all over again. When the mechanics of sexual shame are understood it’s pretty clear where The Comfort of Strangers is headed. Colin rebuts Robert’s sexual eugenics but lets the personal swipe go.
Back at the Hotel Gabrielli Colin and Mary finally find a way forward. The bizarre interlude at Robert’s makes them see the best in each other and they get to grips with the enthusiasm of new lovers.
Colin suggests they live together. Mary doesn’t accept—yet—but is well disposed to the idea. They disembark from a vaporetto (Venice’s waterborne buses) and find themselves outside Robert’s apartment; Caroline beckons from the terrace. Mary ponders whether they should accept. “We can’t very well be rude,” Colin says lamely. It’s frightfully English but also frightfully weak, given that the entire plot hinges on it. It’s the only unsatisfactory beat in an otherwise excellent script.
No matter. Colin and Mary return to the apartment, where everything is in upheaval. Robert and Caroline are moving out; they intend to buy a ground floor apartment because Caroline has severe back pain. Robert takes Colin to his bar, which he’s just sold. They pass through a group of men. One of them pinches Colin’s bottom; once again it’s incidental but significant. Meanwhile, Mary queries Caroline about her bad back. Caroline reveals that Robert used to hurt her during sex. “After a time I found I liked it… I felt it was right that I should be punished.”
This craving for sexual punishment, with its implicit guilt, surfaces repeatedly in Sexcatraz. Caroline’s shame about her own sexuality has led her to normalise Robert’s sexual violence—the cause of which is becoming increasingly obvious—and also informs her next actions. Caroline laces Mary’s tea with a sedative then leads her into the master bedroom, which is wallpapered with photographs of Colin. “Putting them on the wall was my idea,” she blurts with schoolgirl glee. Mary’s head swims. Helen Mirren, in one of her creepiest performances, exults in the role of the sexually disturbed Caroline now ascending towards epiphany. It’s not long in coming.
Robert returns from the bar with Colin; Caroline leads the incoherent Mary into the room. Colin fails to rouse her. His demands for a doctor are ignored; there’s no comfort in these strangers. A scuffle ensues. Robert pins Colin to the wall. “What do you want?” he rasps. Robert whips out a razor. Caroline unzips Colin’s fly, signalling that sex—specifically, the male genital—is the cause of all this to-do. Robert slits Colin’s throat. It’s shockingly sudden but visually restrained. Robert and Caroline kiss, their alchemical work achieved, or so they believe, while Mary—along with some of the audience—blinks uncomprehendingly.
The Comfort of Strangers closes at a Venetian police station. “We were going to get married,” Mary lies, posthumously accepting Colin’s implicit proposal. Mary catches a final glimpse of Caroline, gracefully awaiting her fate, and of Robert being questioned.
The interrogator cannot fathom why Robert had his getaway planned yet left behind a bloodied razor covered in fingerprints and made travel arrangements under his own passport. Robert leans back and savours a long-anticipated moment: “My father was a very big man. All his life he wore a black moustache…” Pinter turns the screw, completing the psychological mosaic that finally reveals the meaning of The Comfort of Strangers.
Like Marcello in The Conformist, Robert is a repressed homosexual, too ashamed of his homoerotic desires to allow himself to express them in healthy and consensual ways. His shame stems from his failure to meet the definition of manhood—a personal covenant—modelled by his father, a powerful man who despised homosexuals. The Comfort of Strangers shows how the shame of Robert’s failure to live up to his father’s sexual ideals shaped his entire life: to marry when his real interest is in men; to find a wife whose own shame allows Robert to vent his sexual rage on her; to own a gay bar to be near the men he is attracted to (though he cannot permit himself to pursue that attraction); and finally his attempted catharsis—to prove himself not just a man, but a “big man”—by murdering Colin, the epitome of male beauty. For every one of these choices Robert would have had a justifying rationalisation, choices that led inexorably to Colin’s seemingly irrational death. For all his air of sophistication and success, that the world is his oyster and he can do as he pleases, the sexual covenants Robert unconsciously acquired from his macho forbears condemned him to a life in Sexcatraz. This in turn fostered the rage that Robert vented on Caroline and ultimately on Colin. This rage was like a tide, slowly welling up inside Robert over the course of his life until it finally impelled him to kill. This is the power of sexual shame, taking a lifetime to shape itself into a single moment of destructive release.
The film earned mixed reviews, with some critics finding Colin’s death puzzling and unmotivated. However, understood in the light of boundary + violation = reaction, sexual covenants, sexual-political roles and repressed homosexuality, it makes complete sense. The Comfort of Strangers may be an elaborate fiction, but the psychosexual mechanics portrayed by its excellent cast are entirely accurate. Although Walken went unrewarded, Natasha Richardson won Best Actress at the 1991 Evening Standard British Film Awards.
Despite its emotional accuracy, The Comfort of Strangers can still be dismissed as the figment of a writer’s imagination. Not so the next film. The exploration of sexually assured destruction continues with another of Paul Schrader’s films—Auto Focus, a carefully crafted biopic of Bob Crane, star of the much-loved 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
 Destructive sexual fantasies are not unknown in real life. In May 2015 a New Zealand court found Philip Lyle Hansen guilty of pulling teeth from four women using pliers, without anaesthetic, during sex.