“My father was a very big man. And he wore a black moustache.”
We hear these words three times within Paul Schrader’s 1991 Thriller The Comfort of Strangers. It is uttered by the perfectly cast Christopher Walken as the strange, mysterious character of Robert. But we are unsure as to why this short monologue, that proceeds with the tale of Roberts childish feud with his sisters, is so significant. As it turns out, as is with the rest of the movie, we are never allowed a full conclusion to this question.
In Venice during the nineties, holidaying lovers Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) coincide with the seemingly polite yet somewhat unnerving white suited man of Robert. The fact that he knows every passer-by in town is at first affirming, yet their foreign greetings offer an unsettling atmosphere surrounding this stranger as we don’t understand them. Throughout the film we are followed by this on-edge feeling that something isn’t quite right- despite neither Robert nor his timid wife Caroline (Helen Mirren) doing anything to suggest any villainy. Buying the couple drinks, cooking them dinner, offering their guest room to sleep…all seems well. And yet, there remains something superficial about it…just as Schrader intended.
This oftentimes erotic foreign drama, based on Ian McEwan’s 1981 novel, has a subtlety to it that allows a chill upon viewing without the use of heavy gore or violence. We are given instead, repeating motifs (such as the aforementioned monologue), unfamiliar settings and the distinct feeling of being trapped. As Mary states in the first half of the film “This place is a prison” we view the narrative entirely through the couple’s eyes.
As they become at once suspicious but unsure of why (therefor unable to confront it) we do in turn. Because of this, when Colin and Mary begin to feel as if they are being followed, the audience feel a little claustrophobic alongside them. You can’t help at some points asking the couple why they don’t just go home. Remove themselves from the unusually hospitable strangers sight. Yet deep down we know that if they did, there would be no explanation for Roberts almost fetish behaviors.
The use of Venice’s setting is cleverly manipulated by Schrader in The Comfort of Strangers. An almost maze-like path of housed passageways offers up the murky shadows and sharp corners as an extension of how the protagonists are feeling. That is: lost, confused and wanting only a way out. Roberts home is similar to his attire; lavish, grand and foreign to the couples own lives. (Compare his white suit to Colin’s standard dark one, or the guest bedroom to their hotel). Yet in spite of all this luxury, you can’t help but notice with Schrader’s sweeping tracking shots, the emptiness of it. The luxury as evidence of greed and most likely corruption.
This tracking shot method is employed a handful times. Most notably in the opening credits and when Robert relays his monologue the second time around in his bar. As Walken tells his clearly rehearsed tale, the camera takes us away from his face and around the leather-jacketed men of the smoke-ridden bar. Why? To show us this isn’t the romantic, postcard-picture Venice the couple (nor we) were expecting. To show us, we have entered a darker place.
Nuggets of information that indicate Robert and Caroline’s intentions are scattered lightly throughout the film. Caroline’s bad back, the missing state of the couple’s clothes and the omnipresent figure of Roberts father hanging over them. These all point toward illicit motives beneath the friendly exterior. But are we offered a truly satisfying result? Well…no.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the movie. And I recommend it. The clear themes of obsession, envy, entrapment and ‘beauty’ that is widely admired about Collins character allow a well-layered narrative. This is particularly interesting as the focus is on the man- a shy one too. Differing from the stereotypical heroic male. It doesn’t lean on special effects or over-the-top horror to build a suspenseful atmosphere either. However, it must be said that something felt missing once the end credits began to roll on screen. The climax felt sudden and lacking in real motive. If motive if what makes a truly good villain, if we don’t understand it…how can we be thrilled by it?
With all the effort that went into tension building, it seems odd that no real explanation is given…merely skimmed over. We feel as if Roberts father is important, perhaps the cause of his eeriness. But how? There’s no real link that’s properly relayed, though I’m sure there is one is the book.
In summary, we know what happens, but we never fully find out why.