The Comfort of Strangers

I don't know, when DOES a simple vacation become an erotic odyssey?
★★★
☆
Released: 
1990
Director: 
Paul Schrader
Starring: 
Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson, Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren
The Setup: 
Couple are attempting to rekindle their romance while on vacation in Venice. They meet a mysterious and menacing Italian, who helps turn their simple vacation into an erotic odyssey.
Discussion: 

When does a simple vacation become an erotic odyssey? That is the question the trailer for this film asks. You can just see some copywriter somewhere coming up with that one. Nevertheless, it is a question I have often asked myself. I can't tell you how many times I thought I was on a simple vacation, and wouldn't you know, it turned out to be an erotic odyssey. But more often than not, there I am, thinking I'm on an erotic odyssey, and it turns out to be just a simple vacation. You know, you really never can tell.

Okay, I'll stop ragging on the copywriting in the trailer now. How for the movie itself? It's a very good, unsettling tale of perverted sexuality and latent homoeroticism that unfolds at a leisurely pace in Venice. This movie is a sort of bookend movie to Don't Look Now, so much so that I strongly suspect that the Ian McEwan novel was at least partially inspired by the Daphne DuMaurier novel [as well as, it must be acknowledged, Death in Venice]. They both include a couple with a shaky relationship in Venice, several scenes of getting lost in the winding streets, the intrusion of a mysterious and disruptive stranger, and similarly surprising endings.

Rupert Everett plays Colin, in a strained relationship with Natasha Richardson's Mary. They are on vacation in Venice, where they had vacationed two years previously, in the hopes of sorting out whether or not they want to continue with their relationship. Mary has two kids from a prior marriage that Colin does not seem particularly fond of, and he seems to regard her as insipid and whiny-which she pretty much is. When she remarks that she thought some paintings they saw were incredible, he dismissively remarks: "That's what you thought last time." Can this union be saved?

Add to this a lopsided sexual tension throughout. They are constantly talking about how beautiful Colin is, and whether he is more beautiful than Mary. They discuss whether the people they see are looking at Mary or Colin. The film itself fetishizes Colin, offering long, loving shots of him nude or shirtless, which, as it turns out, serves the story. While Colin is in no way portrayed as gay, it is obvious that he can't summon up any interest in Mary, and certainly doesn't seem to care much for her kids. But there is a homoerotic tone just in the way the camera lingers over him and the way his beauty is a recurring topic of interest.

The couple get lost late one night, and run into Christopher Walken as Robert, who invites them to a bar that it turns out he owns. The bar seems to be populated entirely by men who seem pretty gay to me, although later two shots are inserted that show women. Later Robert tells two other guys who are interested in Colin that Colin is his lover. At the bar Robert gets them drunk and tells them a long and disturbing story about his imperious and dominating father. They get the creeps from him, but can't avoid seeing him again the next day, and being invited to his house, where they meet his wife Caroline, played by Helen Mirren.

Colin and Mary sleep, and wake to find that their clothes have been taken. Caroline tells them, and makes Mary repeat to Colin because it's so important, that she came into their room and watched them for a half hour while they slept. She waxes on and on about Colin's beauty. The whole thing is getting creepy fast, and gets more so when Robert suddenly punches Colin in the stomach after he indirectly insults Robert for being obsessed with his father.

It continues to get creepier and creepier, and I wouldn't dare spoil the surprising ending for you, but suffice to say that the film's point of view isn't the only one with a homoerotic obsession with Colin and his beauty.

The movie opens with a wonderful credits sequence as the camera languidly floats through Robert and Caroline's apartment to the languid strains of one of Angelo Badalamenti's [Twin Peaks] most beautiful scores. I saw this movie when it came out 15 years ago, and one of the things I never forgot is this credits sequence and the wonderful score. As usual for a Paul Schrader film, the whole thing moves a bit too slowly for my taste, but at least there's a story here to tell, and the screenplay by Harold Pinter does a great job of capturing the disjointed nature of real conversation.

It's hard to tell much more of the story without talking about the ending, a problem the trailer has, which it solves by pretty much showing the entire story from beginning to end, while delivering idiotic commentary such as the aforementioned question regarding simple vacations vs. erotic odysseys. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating, disturbing film with great performances from Walken and Mirren, and if you liked Don't Look Now, you should definitely look into it.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, just be aware that it's very slow and talky.

RELATED MOVIES:
DON'T LOOK NOW is a bookend movie to this film, with a great deal of similarities in events and tone.