Acomplex look at an illicit affair that ends in disaster for everyone in its vicinity, “Damage” is a cold, brittle film about raging, traumatic emotions. Unjustly famous before its release for its hardly extraordinary erotic content, this veddy British-feeling drama from vet French director Louis Malle proves both compelling and borderline risible, wrenching and yet emotionally pinched, and reps a solid entry for serious art house audiences worldwide. But more mainstream Yank viewers led by publicity to expect a hot or romantic time will be in for a dry two hours.
One of the most restrained and spare of well-known directors, Malle has been repeatedly drawn to stories of unconventional, sometimes taboo-breaking sexual relationships, notably in “The Lovers,””Murmur of the Heart” and “Pretty Baby.” The latest addition to this list, “Damage” assumes a clear-eyed perspective on the behavior of an English Member of Parliament whose secret liaison with a young beauty leads him to terribly betray both his wife and son.
The story engages some weighty themes that are startling, disturbing and sufficiently articulated to entice viewers in the right frame of mind. Most obviously, this is the portrait of a highly controlled middle-aged man who becomes unraveled by an unbridled, unprecedented passion. But the film also provocatively charts a father-son competition played out in the sexual arena with the same woman, points up how completely the libido can obliterate reason and illustrates how living a lie can so easily become the norm that there seems nothing wrong with it.
As far as the sex goes, there are several sequences of abandon between Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, but their bodies are so intertwined most of the time that one can scarcely see anything, and they are lensed and cut in so measured a way that their effect is far from being a turn-on. It was clearly not intended to be.
Original version, which was screened for critics while the battle with the MPAA over the NC-17 rating was played out, contains nothing that hasn’t been seen in countless R-rated pix over the years; if the entire flap hadn’t happened , one wouldn’t have thought anything of it. As things stand, film is being cut to R-rating specifications, which must now be considerably more rigorous than they were a few months ago.
Irons plays Stephen Fleming, a graying, very proper figure in the Tory establishment who married into money and lives a very carefully groomed and organized existence. His wife, Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), may be sharper and more intelligent than he is, their daughter Sally is going through the awkward stage, and son Martyn (Rupert Graves), barely out of school, is embarked upon a promising journalism career.
At a boring political cocktail party, Stephen exchanges significant eye contact with his son’s striking g.f. Anna Barton (Binoche), and destiny is written. In a scene that does nothing for the reputation of British foreplay, at their next encounter Stephen is in Anna’s pants in record time and they embark on a reckless affair that heeds only the need for discretion.
Instinctively attempting to order the wild impulses he is experiencing, Stephen takes the normal course of proposing to leave his wife and move in with Anna. But Anna, who has already confessed her dread of possessiveness and the tragic story of her brother’s teenage suicide over love for her, simply tells him he has nothing to gain from such a move, as he’s already got as much of her as he could want, and always will.
The story’s contours get pushed to further extremes once Anna and Martyn become engaged. Some more clearly intentional, if bleak, humor rises from a series of strained family gatherings during which Stephen can barely contain his lust for Anna, and from a luncheon at which her mother (an excellent Leslie Caron) disastrously carries on about how much Martyn resembles Anna’s dead brother.
No matter what they say or do, Stephen and Anna ultimately can’t help themselves, which leads to catastrophe so devastating that “damage” represents a grievous understatement. Wrap-up is perhaps unnecessarily protracted, but point is well made that none of the characters can possibly be the same again after the string of lies, deceit, betrayals and cruelty.
Irons’ character becomes more loathsome as he goes along, which will disaffect some viewers, but thesp’s expertly calibrated performance makes utterly believable the notion that, from beginning to end, Stephen thinks he can get away with his outrageous behavior, and even that he deserves to.
With parted short hair, black attire and an accent far more British than French, the beautiful Binoche comes off as rathersevere, even masculine, in a role that is almost impossibly opaque and enigmatic. Willful and decisive at some moments, utterly passive and pliant at others, Anna has been hurt in a nearly unfathomable manner, and Binoche delivers the critical idea that in sex with Stephen, Anna is able to reach a state of oblivion that can momentarily wipe out the inescapable memory of her brother.
Malle’s usual austerity is heightened by the clipped, sometimes constipated writing style of scripter David Hare. In his variably successful attempt to distill scenes to their essences, the celebrated playwright occasionally abbreviates them to the point where less actually is less.
The pitiable, in-the-dark wife for most of the running time, Richardson puts frightening force behind her rage when all hell finally breaks loose, and Graves ultimately lends some nice shadings to the basically agreeable, somewhat green Martyn.
Awash with ironies and implicit parallels between political and emotional bankruptcy, pic has a frosty handsomeness entirely in keeping with its subject. Zbigniew Preisner’s score is full of foreboding and mournfulness.