The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Helen Mirren as Caroline and Natasha Richardson as Mary in The Comfort of Strangers (1990) (Criterion)

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

The Comfort of Strangers
Paul Schrader


18 August 2020


People are strange. This is the lesson we learn from strangers. The English "strange" derives from the Old French estrange, which in turn derives from the Latin extraneus. Thus, that which is "strange" is extraneous to our usual understanding of the world; therefore, the stranger is the person who is outside the sphere of our comprehension, beyond our ability to recognize similarity to ourselves.

Of course, some part of us rebels at this thought. We believe there is a deep-seated compulsion to recognize another human being as consonant with our sense of ourselves. This is particularly true in large crowds in a crisis—the overarching need for shared humanity trumps our natural suspicion. Things work otherwise at times when dealing with individuals. The lone person standing at a slight distance in a dimly lit street is inherently menacing. This is an encounter with another person—someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Equally, we are unknown to the stranger. This is the comfort the stranger sometimes offers: another person, like us but not like us, at once familiar and unknown. The stranger is, by definition, outside our sphere of living. We can tell her anything. She can reject it or accept it. The stranger becomes a testing ground for our image of what is acceptable in humanity, what is licit or sanctionable within the realm of the human, and what lies outside the limits of permissibility. We confide in strangers as propaedeutic to coming to grips with our ever renewed sense of who we are and what we might like to be.

But the stranger also forces us to renew our attempts to understand humanity. We think we know our friends and family; they disappear to a certain extent in their familiarity. The stranger appears to us as a new and unbidden call to awareness. And in confronting the stranger in all of her bizarre humanity we confront what is truly human and perhaps truly bizarre in our own manner of being. The stranger estranges us from ourselves. Perhaps that is what I am like after all. How strange.

In Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1990), we follow an unmarried but long-term British couple, Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), as they vacation in Venice, that mysterious and haunting city that has long drawn romantic tourists to its intersecting canals, its winding roads and alleyways, some of which open up to unimagined vistas and others of which twist into an unforeseen dead-end.

Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Colin and Mary don't live together in England and it soon becomes clear that they are at something of a crossroads in their relationship. Mary is a divorced mother of two; she fears that Colin has rather little interest in her children. Colin is benignly self-centered; he seems solicitous of Mary but also not terribly interested in taking the relationship beyond its current status. They had visited Venice once before and this trip is meant to inspire them to come to some sort of decision.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti beautifully captures Venice in all of its strange attractions, at once forbidding and enticing. Every doorway, every alleyway, every canal is simultaneously the perfect aesthetic frame setting the protagonists into high relief and the perfect existential trap, condemning them to wander aimlessly within Venice's web, caught in the entanglements of their own indecision. Then they meet the spider.

Robert (Christopher Walken) has been tracking them for days, taking furtive photographs of Colin. One evening, well past closing time for most of the restaurants, when they are hungry and have entirely lost their bearing, Robert approaches. Passing a feminist poster that Mary had just been admiring (one insisting that convicted rapists ought to be castrated), Robert declares that these are women who can't find men and they don't know what they want. He takes them to what appears to be a gay bar, claiming it is a restaurant proffering "beautiful Venetian food".

When they arrive, they find the chef is ill and they won't be served. Robert brings them a wine, "rich with nourishment" and, on the pretense of telling them about his wife, he tells them about his imposing father and his grandiose mustache, the fear he inspired, and how Robert was his favorite. The story soon turns toward a revenge plot in which his sisters, to even a score for a whipping they received from the father owing to Robert's tattling, ply the boy with rich food and then trap him in his father's office while he vomits, urinates, and defecates in that sanctified room.

It's the kind of story no one (particularly the prim Brits that Colin and Mary represent) would expect to hear at a restaurant table. And yet, how can they object precisely? It is the kind of story that one might shut down were it to come from an intimate, a friend. But here it is delivered by a total stranger and that demands a forbearance that encourages familiarity where there ought to be none.

Christopher Walken as Robert (IMDB)

Bewildered, Colin and Mary never find their way back to the hotel; they sleep in an alleyway. Bedraggled and bickering at a café in the morning, they once again encounter Robert, despite their efforts to avert their gaze and thus dodge his attention. He insists that their misadventure is his fault and he demands they come to his home to rest.

The villa is an inheritance and it is stunning. Overwhelming views of the canal vie for one's attention with the gorgeously preserved antique furniture, the numerous and exquisite paintings, the lavish décor. Colin and Mary awaken, naked in a strange bed, their clothes missing. Mary puts on a nightgown and goes to investigate. She encounters Caroline (Helen Mirren), Robert's wife. Caroline confesses unabashedly that she had watched the couple as they slept, that she greatly admires Colin's beauty, and that she has taken their clothes to launder them but that she was also instructed by Robert to refuse to return the clothes until the couple agreed to stay to dinner.

The nature of Robert's and Caroline's relationship remains murky but several implications soon emerge. Caroline is shocked to learn that Mary had been part of an all-female theater group. What could a play with nothing but women accomplish?, she asks. Everyone would just be waiting for the man, and then things would happen. Caroline recommends total submission to a lover and intimates that her painful spine condition resulted from Robert's abuse (most likely sexual in nature).

Colin is given a tour of a room in the villa where several of the possessions of Robert's grandfather and father are preserved on display. Colin observes that Robert is quite devoted to the memory of his father. Robert insists that these were true men, men to be respected, men to be feared. When Colin quips that this is a "museum to the good old days", he receives a punch to the gut. The couple get through dinner and make their escape.

Now everything changes between Colin and Mary. Previous to this moment, they slept in the same hotel room but in separate beds; there appeared to be precious little physical affection between them. Now they spend several days locked away in their room, refusing the maid entry to clean, piling up trays of room service, and making constant, passionate love. When the finally emerge and patronize a local café, Colin discourses on the names given to erogenous zones and marvels over the fact that only the word "thighs" seems to have no readily available synonym. Meanwhile, Mary insists that everyone in the café is notably and lasciviously interested in Colin and indeed the other patrons do seem to be staring.

In the immediately following scene we find Colin lying prone across the bed, naked, his head and arm reaching toward the floor as he organizes the pages of a manuscript—doubtless the book he has so often referred to as unreadable. A glass of wine rests at a perfect distance from the papers, which, in turn, are perfectly ordered in their disarray. Everything in this meticulous film is immaculately arrayed but now, after the meeting with Robert and Caroline, the preciosity of it all is tinged with an extravagant luxury that lurches toward the decadent.

Mary, also naked, is perched on the carpeted floor, eating a small bowl of ice cream. The spoon, heated from the warmth of her tongue, gently melts into her next portion; she doesn't so much eat the ice cream as she allows it to dissipate into the allure of her mouth; consumption here is a mode of seduction.

We first see Mary in this scene from the rear, her body sculpted in the manner of a vase—all poised verticality, in contrast to Colin's horizontal draping across the bed. She smiles coquettishly, now far removed from the rather prim and reserved person she had been earlier in the film. Then she speaks. She claims to have devised a new plan wherein she will hire a handsome surgeon to remove all of Colin's limbs and she will preserve the remainder of his body so she can copulate with it at her leisure, and perhaps sometimes lend it out to her friends. It's funny, Colin responds, but he too has developed a plan. He intends to create a machine made entirely of metal that will penetrate Mary…not just for days or a week but for years, indeed forever.

Now, the mileage on erotic fantasy varies wildly but I can't say I find either of these images all that arousing. More to the point, the objects of these respective fantasies seem more interested in countering with their own bizarre plans rather than engaging directly with the images being proposed to them. Colin is certainly more eager to respond than listen and while Mary construes some kind of sexy face in response to Colin's mechanical copulation scheme, there is a certain element in her look that registers the oddity of it all.

At the same time, both of them begin to exhibit qualities they seem to have gleaned from Robert and Caroline. Colin flirtatiously insists on his exclusive rights to Mary's body while they sit at the café; Mary gently resists another bout of lovemaking only to give in to his insistence (eschewing the strong independence she had earlier displayed). Both of them unreservedly discuss erogenous zones in public and they make no effort to hide their activities from the poor maid who only wants to clean their room. None of this is consonant with their earlier behavior. Indeed, unforgiving viewers may find the alteration all too abrupt and under-motivated.

Natasha Richardson as Mary and Rupert Everett as Colin (IMDB)

The sadistic fantasies they produce (unforgiving fornication machines and selective dismemberment for the purpose of sexual slavery) are so beyond the pale for these characters that one almost wonders if it is precisely that fact that Colin and Mary now find erotic. That is to say, the excitement they feel comes from estrangement, estrangement from the people they normally are.

The remainder of the film carries through a somewhat predictable and not terribly interesting twist. I suppose the climax is what will linger with most viewers but I think Schrader's true accomplishment in this film has to do with these scenes and the radical alteration in the characterization of Colin and Mary.

The question necessarily emerges: Why the sudden change? What was it in that discomfiting encounter with strangers—strangers who held no real interest for Colin and Mary (hardly even pointless curiosity much less interest of a more sensual nature)—that inspired the relatively drastic shift from prim and relatively cold tourists to torrid and insatiable lovers? At this point, Robert and Caroline weren't much of a threat—aside from an unwelcome punch to the gut and more than a few unwelcome personal disclosures. But perhaps the threat of the stranger lies deeper than actual bodily harm.

The stranger in her strangeness reflects you in yours. And in witnessing how strange others can be you come to realize that you differ from yourself, that you are not identical with what you take your self to be. That phrase in English is wonderfully ambiguous: your self. Is it the self that you are or the self that you have? And if it is what you have, in the manner of a possession, can you simply toss it aside?

The Germans have a long tradition of Bildung, the concept that one shapes one's identity through the careful cultivation of taste and insight through education and exposure to the arts and literature. The notion comes from its root, Bild, or "image". So, in engaging in Bildung, I shape myself according to an image that develops in and through that shaping. I bring into alignment my feelings and my intellect, my desires and my beliefs, my goals and my ideals.

But there is always the possibility in me and around me of a disruption of the self. Again, there is a useful ambiguity here. Is it the self that is disrupted or that does the disrupting? We work so hard to develop and maintain an identity. We like to think that we know who we are. And yet there is always something lurking within us that derails that security. Something that is not our image of the self and yet can derive from no other place than the self.

This is the function of the stranger in her strangeness. She shows you something about yourself that you might rather not see. She instigates a change in you that isn't really a change at all, a disruption that creates no new rupture because ultimately that is all there ever was to the self to begin with: a rupture.

The self is the Open. We can take that to be an openness to opportunity or an open wound, a projection of possibility or an eternal, irrecoverable lack. In either case, we can't possibly know ourselves because our mode of being depends on the emergence of the unknown. Every encounter with a stranger is an invitation to pass through the mirror, to come to grips with the stranger that resides in our heart, the stranger that haunts our every thought.

Criterion Collection has recently released director Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers, adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan through a screenplay by Harold Pinter, with incredible cinematography by Dante Spinotti. Spinotti supervised the restoration here and the visuals of this film are truly stunning. The edition comes with interviews with Spinotti, Schrader, editor Bill Pankow, Ian McEwan, Natasha Richardson, and Christopher Walken.





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