Paul Schrader, likely more known for his work as a screenwriter and frequent collaborations with Martin Scorsese on the scripts for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ (to name a few), has directed a fair amount of underrated films. The only films he has directed that have drifted more into the spotlight seem to have been his recent First Reformed and his Yukio Mishima biopic, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, however, his other films – like the brilliant Light Sleeper, or Affliction – remain underrated.
The Comfort of Strangers is another film that, strangely, seemed to slide below the radar generally. Adapted from the successful novella of the same name by Ian McEwan (also the author of Atonement, among other successful novels) and starring Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren, it seems sure that The Comfort of Strangers would have been a hit, but it fell into obscurity until being picked up quite recently by the BFI for a physical release. The film follows Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), a married couple who have holidayed to Venice to try to bring a certain spark back to their failing marriage, who become lost in the city and are gradually seduced by Robert (Walken) and Caroline (Mirren).
The film’s slow pacing and creeping cinematography (coming from Dante Spinotti – a frequent collaborator with Michael Mann on films such as Heat and Public Enemies!) turn Venice into an eerie, almost desolate landscape fuelled by unpredictable darkness, one that never fully reveals itself until the film’s climactic scene. Walken gives one of his career-best performances as the always-mysterious Robert, too, often falling into monologues about his childhood that, of course, add a great deal to that aforementioned eerie feeling. If The Comfort of Strangers has to be summed up in any way, eerie is definitely the word to use – the film feels constantly on edge, at the brink of discovering something truly horrifying… but it holds out its tension beautifully. It may be 25 years old, but the tension throughout is still as palpable as ever.
The Comfort of Strangers, released in 1991, is available on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK by BFI and can be streamed via the Criterion Channel. Watch the trailer below: