The Comfort of Strangers is a film Paul Schrader directed at the start of the ’90s, a decade which was not kind to him, to say the least, despite the fact that he made a handful of good to excellent films during that time. It’s based on the second novel of famous British author Ian McEwan, with a screenplay by none other than Harold Pinter. At this time Pinter was a writer-for-hire for film adaptations of literal novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Trial and The Remains of the Day, to name just a few. Schrader himself is undeniably one of the greatest living screenwriters… he wrote Taxi Driver for Christ’s sake, never mind everything else, but he enjoyed just being a director for this film.
Even though the source novel never explicitly names the city, it’s clearly set in Venice. Two British lovers, Mary (Miranda Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett), are visiting the city on holiday. They meet Robert (Christopher Walken), who takes them to a bar in the city. The couple soon get wrapped up in the strange psychosexual fantasies of Robert and his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren), and before long their obsession with the couple gets increasingly creepy.
Schrader is a bit of an odd choice for director, because despite being heavily influenced by European filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, he is very much an American director. With the exception of his masterpiece Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, most of Schrader’s best work transfers the transcendent qualities of those directors’ style onto stories that comment on America in one way or another. The Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who is probably best known for his work with Michael Mann, partnered with Schrader on this film. It’s elegant, but it’s not as stylised as I would wish.
The cast are all good, with Walken doing a bizarre accent in that very special way he delivers lines—but the accent works, given that his character is a manipulative liar. The rest of the four actors are all good, but while Walken is clearly having the most fun, Richardson probably gives his second-best performance ever. It’s a reminder of why her tragic death was a real loss, she also played Patty Hearst in Schrader’s messy but good biopic. The score is by Angelo Badalamenti, who everybody knows due to his work with David Lynch (and this is one of his first big scores outside Lynch). However, it’s a little subdued and lacks the magic of the music he has done with Lynch.
Overall, The Comfort of Strangers is a very good Schrader film, even though despite its shocking climax it never quite goes to the darker realms, which the film suggests rather than depicts for the most part. However, if you, like me, love Schrader’s films, it’s an essential watch, as it’s an important film in his career. The disc’s special features are all various audio recordings of Schrader talking about The Comfort of Strangers and his other films, including a newly recorded commentary for this release, archival audio from a masterclass and a Guardian lecture he gave sometime in the early ’90s. The trailer and a booklet with new and old writing on the film are also part of the package.