Revisiting Paul Schrader's languorous, late-summer erotic thriller from the Nineties

The floating city of Venice and its winding canals serve as the backdrop to a dark tale in The Comfort of Strangers. 

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September means summer is over, but I am struggling to summon the month’s propulsive back-to-school energy. I want to drain the season’s last dregs by squeezing in one last getaway. My destination? The floating city of Venice, setting of Paul Schrader’s languorous, late-summer erotic thriller The Comfort of Strangers.

The film, released in 1990, sees holidaying couple Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) quickly lost among Venice’s labyrinthine cobbled backstreets after dark in search of a late-night café. Unluckily, they happen upon the debonair Robert (Christopher Walken), who ushers them into a neighbourhood bar and promises them “delicious Venetian food”.

Instead, he plies them with delicious Venetian wine, getting the couple so drunk they sleep outside. He spots them nursing espressos in a café the following morning and invites them back to his palazzo; hungover and vulnerable, they oblige. Then things get weird. They wake up in an unfamiliar four-poster bed, naked. Robert’s wife Caroline (Helen Mirren) confesses she has been watching them while they sleep, admiring their “wonderful skin”. She performs a kinky monologue about being in love, describing it as when “you’d do absolutely anything for the other person, and you’d let them do absolutely anything to you”.

The City of Love has been immortalised in much more respectable films, such as David Lean’s Summertime (1955), Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), and perhaps most unforgettably in Nicolas Roeg’s exquisitely melancholy horror Don’t Look Now (1973). Venice’s winding canals, twisting passageways and dramatic, crumbling facades suggest a city trapped in time, waterlogged and decaying. Schrader taps into the erotic possibilities of its dankness, emphasising its steamed up hotel windows and lingering on the clandestine nooks and crannies built into its architecture.

Shot by Italian cinematographer and frequent Michael Mann collaborator Dante Spinotti, scored by Angelo Badalamenti (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) and costumed, impeccably, by Giorgio Armani, Schrader’s is an American Italophile’s Venice with all the necessary hallmarks, from the romantic ambers and reds he casts the city in, to Richardson’s seductive Botticelli curls.

Schrader and Armani had worked together on American Gigolo in 1980, a movie that made the Italian designer a household name. In it, Richard Gere, playing a male escort, embodies Armani’s style philosophy; elegant and sophisticated, but at the same time informal, sensual – the kind of “effortless” that requires model good looks to be properly pulled off. In The Comfort of Strangers, Mary’s wardrobe is pure 1990s Armani: unstructured knee-length skirts; minimalist slip dresses worn sans bra; a soft, oversized cardigan the colour of apricot. Walken, as Robert, wears a flashy white suit with wide lapels and relaxed, dropped shoulders.

Mary and Colin find themselves strangely turned on by their bizarre encounter with Robert and Caroline, and so Schrader has the couple spend the second half of the film in their hotel room. The sex scenes are tinged a desaturated grey-green, which recalls another fashion house’s Nineties heyday. In 1990, David Lynch shot a series of black and white TV commercials for Calvin Klein’s “Obsession” campaign, which featured pairs of lovers tangled up and reading saucily from classic novels such as DH Lawrence’s Women in Love and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. That same year, the Italian-American fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti went on to make the then 16-year-old Kate Moss world-famous by shooting her nude (again, in black and white) for the same campaign. At one point, Schrader has Mary sit naked, like Moss, perched on the carpeted floor, eating gelato out of a small silver cup.

For all its moody, cultivated sexiness, helped along by Armani, Badalamenti and, of course, Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay based on Ian McEwan’s 1981 novel, the film’s veneer of sophistication occasionally slips. In one scene, Mary and Colin share their fantasies with one another; she suggests dismembering him and using his body for her own pleasure, while he suggests abusing her with a mechanical contraption for years at a time. Rupert Everett – however briefly – wears a see-through nightie. Schrader finishes with a violent outburst that lurches into baroque trashiness. On this occasion, I don’t mind. The distinctly Nineties sheen of the sex, schlock and gore has time travel potential, transporting me as much through time as through space, across to the floating city. And anyway, as this strange, clammy summer draws to a close, I’m just happy to be on holiday. 

Simran Hans is a freelance writer for publications including BuzzFeed, The FADER, Little White Lies, Pitchfork and Sight & Sound magazine.

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour

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