Schrader: The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

The Comfort of Strangers marks the meeting of three quite distinct artistic minds. Directed by Paul Schrader, the screenplay by Harold Pinter is based on an early novella by Ian McEwan. That kind of convergence may explain why the end result is so elusive, mercurial and, at times, unreadable. On the face of it, the narrative revolves around a couple, Colin, played by Rupert Everett, and Mary, played by Natasha Richardson, who have travelled to Venice to figure out “what to do” about their relationship. Although we don’t find out much about their history, or even their personalities, it’s clear that their fantasy of each other has started to wane. Conversely, it’s clear that they are depending upon Venice to restore this mutual fantasy. Up to a point it delivers, as Schrader transforms the city into an architecture of desire, a porous threshold to the Middle East that exudes a sultry languor along with a Merchant Ivory luxury.

Yet Venice quickly comes to feel like a mere placeholder for desire, thereby reiterating, rather than solving, the waning fantasies of each other that this couple share, as Schrader inclines towards enormous empty spaces, along with labyrinthine warrens of urban decay. While the action does seem to be occurring during the tourist season, the action shifts so rapidly and vertiginously between tourist hotspots and deserted squares and streets that the characters seem to be sunk in the depths of winter, when the city turns back in upon itself. A more ontological blankness also suffuses Venice’s tourist attractions – there’s a foray across to Murano, though we don’t really see anything of it – numbing the couple until they seem to be performing everything by rote. At one point, Mary reflects approvingly on a church, only for Colin to undercut her by observing that she said exactly the same thing on their last trip. So voided does the city become that it’s often difficult to tell whether it is even day or night, as Colin and Mary stumble through the pereptual twilight of their own desire for each other.

The core of the film gets moving when Colin and Mary encounter another, older couple – or, rather, when this couple encounter them, and invite them into their lives. For we meet Robert, played by Christopher Walken, long before we meet his wife Caroline, played by Helen Mirren. In fact, the film opens with a monologue from Robert, who often seems to be synonymous with the camera itself, watching Colin and Mary from somewhere amongst, or just behind, the audience. We’re first alerted to his presence in the film proper when Colin observes that Mary has repeated her earlier comments about the church. All of a sudden, at this exact moment when Colin and Mary are attempting to reset their relationship, the screen freezes into a series of still images, which turn out to be photographs that Robert is taking for some yet undisclosed purpose. It’s the first sign that Robert and Caroline are experiencing a similar crisis in their fantasy of each other, and that they are determined to use Colin and Mary to traverse this crisis, explaining why the younger couple become so entranced by them.

Between these two couples, the subject matter and focus of The Comfort of Strangers seems to grow more emergent as the film proceeds. In both couples, the two parties are together alone, so as a foursome they are even more connected, and even more isolated, suffusing the film with a radically oneiric aesthetic that makes it feel a bit surprising – even distasteful – when we finally see Colin and Mary having sex together. Colin confesses that he is jealous of Mary’s beauty, and expresses curiosity about how it feels to be the woman during sex, while Robert’s first incursion into the couple is to effeminise Colin and make him feel like the woman in their own friendship. At times, this seems like it might bloom into a homoerotic subtext, especially given the open secret of Everett’s sexuality at the time, but it largely remains in the realm of the autoerotic – as a fantasy of absorbing both male and female pleasure into a single body so that no other bodies, and no accommodation of the other, is required. More than any other actor, Everett encapsulates this oneiric drive – his typical pose here is sitting down, an arm clasped around his neck, enclosing himself in a monadic space. As The Comfort of Strangers progresses, gender becomes inconvenient insofar as it disrupts these aspirations to erotic hermeticism that animate the foursome’s dance round each other.

This is an unusual dance too, since it both depends on and has to disavow the existence of the other, displacing the film from its own subject matter in the process. The interactions between these characters feel more and more dissociated from their putative meaning, as if each couple only exists in the minds of the other – or as if we are watching two different refractions of a single couple, or even four different refractions of a single person. Paradoxically, the more time the couples spend around each other, the more precisely and minutely their fantasies of each other discorrelate, and Schrader registers this process in the slippage between camera and subject, as every attempt to nail down the couples as couples only prompts the camera to drift further away, in long shots that are too aimless and ambling to be describing as “tracks” or “pans.” Instead, the camera itself seems to have lost its desire for any one subject matter, as if propelled negatively, by intertia, by its very lack of purpose.

Insofar as the third act of the film possesses a stable structure, it inheres in three different attempts to rein in this fantasy, each of which also operates as a fantasy. In the first of these fantasies, Mary confesses to Colin that she has often dreamed of a sex machine that will penetrate her, and provide her with an unwavering surplus of desire, ad infinitum. The second fantasy takes the form of Robert’s recurring monologue, which is both ultra-masculine and androgynously queer at the same time. This monologue starts off as a diatribe against feminist activism, and as an appeal to traditional masculine values, in the form of Robert’s brutal father, who nevertheless (we learn) used mascara to maintain the blackness of his moustache, symbol par excellence of his paternal authority. It’s during the different iterations of Robert’s monologue that Schrader’s camera slackens the most, drifting so far away from its ostensible subject matter that it sinks the entire film into a peripatetic, cruisey, Venetian rhythm from which it never quite extricates itself. Robert himself registers this process, but it only makes him more involuted and insular in his monologic tendencies: “I felt like fantasy was turning into reality. It was like stepping into a mirror – have you ever experienced that?”

These two strategies for reining in fantasy pave the way for the third and final strategy, which also forms the climax of the film. In the closing scene, Robert and Caroline hold Colin against a mirror in their apartment, and cut his throat, while reassuring themselves that “we are on the other side of the mirror,” as Mary’s fantasy is collapsed (or traversed) so thoroughly that she finds herself entirely without speech. From here, Schrader pulls back rapidly to the most cavernous shot of the film, but this enormous mise-en-scene of fantasy is short-lived, since the film ends with Robert, in police custody, giving the same old monologue. And Schrader cuts to black right at the moment when Robert describes his father’s mascara, leaving him (and us) suspended in an intersexual and oneiric space that ensures the continuation of fantasy without having to depend on an other, but only for the beat that constitutes this cut.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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