Damage August 3, 2018
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
When Stephen and Anna meet for the first time, at a gathering of the rich, something shifts in the air. Obligatory niceties are exchanged. But a layer of mutual sexual attraction sits below the surface. Once Stephen and Anna lock eyes, both know that they would like to act on their almost animalistic feelings. There are problems with this. Stephen (Jeremy Irons) is a lucrative physician-turned-politician with a perfectly nice wife (Miranda Richardson) and a noticeably observant teenage daughter (Gemma Clarke) at home. Anna (Juliette Binoche), an oracular Frenchwoman, is the girlfriend and soon-to-be fiancée of Stephen’s now-grown son, an unusually gifted young journalist named Martyn (Rupert Graves). Stephen and Anna know they shouldn't indulge their sexual desires. “Losing everything” as a potential consequence is a mot juste. But they can't help themselves. While Stephen is at work, not long after meeting Anna for the first time, his phone rings. It’s Anna. “Tell me where you are and I’ll be there in an hour,” Stephen succinctly replies. It's as if he has been waiting for this call. So begins an affair. Things will end badly. We know it; Stephen and Anna know it. And Damage, the film which orbits around their scandalous relationship, relishes in the suspense that comes with the transgression.
In the early 1990s, comparably carnal movies, like Basic Instinct (1992) and Final Analysis (1992), were in vogue, conjoining the thrilling with the erotic. They celebrated the connection with Hitchcockian menace; they made their sinful worlds appear appealing and titillating in spite of dangerous undertows. Damage, in contrast, isn’t so concerned with being tantalizing, even though its sex scenes are atypically passionate. It's more intrigued by the ripples that come with acting on one’s temptations. Starting with the moment Stephen and Anna have sex for the first time in the latter’s spacious townhouse, nothing can palliate our anxieties. When will they get caught, and how? What will the repercussions be?
The storyline wouldn't be out of place in a more-conventional soap opera. But Louis Malle, who produced and directed the movie, which would be his penultimate project, underlines the neuroses of the characters more than he does the hammier aspects of the plot, which are, in turn, developed by the screenwriter David Hare.
Stephen, who looks miserable — like a slave to his lust — most likely threw caution to the wind because his life has grown so monotonous. He takes his successes for granted, and unrealistically projects notions of exciting change onto Anna. Anna, whom we discover is the victim of a troubled romantic past, remains a mystery until the closing credits. We surmise that she is, simply, an innately sexual being, and is not opposed to actualizing even the most dangerous of her hankerings.
Undoubtedly, neither person involved in this dalliance is in love. Stephen has, rather, decided that Anna is an emollient for all his discontents, while Anna, more plainly, is enamored of Stephen, and prioritizes her yearnings over the interests of the man to whom she publicly is said to have committed herself. This is a movie about obsession and impulsive behavior, not romance, and it's able to satiate its thematic inclinations without pandering to melodramatic farfetchedness.
Damage wouldn’t have the same impact without Irons and Binoche. Irons, pinched and always with bags under his eyes, effectively relates that his sexual avidity is taking as much of a toll as his guilt. Binoche, in a way akin to the Italian actress Monica Vitti, a performer who was an expert in the art of the emotional simulacrum, is convincingly enigmatic. It's not difficult to understand why Irons’ character is so infatuated: He’s as much attracted to her as he is intent on figuring her out. He, and we, never will, though.
Richardson and Graves are crucial too. Richardson is more or less ancillary for most of the film, but that's the point: we are supposed to take her for granted, just like Stephen. The film’s last act, which finds Richardson dealing with her discovery of her on-screen husband’s improprieties, stings, then. The scenes watching Richardson’s character express her choler are arguably the movie’s best: Richardson, who received much award recognition in the aftermath of the feature’s release, makes her character’s emotional disorientation so palpable, it’s almost vertiginous. Graves, benevolent and charismatic, is the sort of actor to whom we take a liking immediately — and his Martyn, who is considerate and intelligent, is easy to grow attached to. His fated betrayal is particularly excruciating when it arrives.
Damage’s ability to enrapture as much as it does is unexpected. It's saddled with an overwrought, overfamiliar storyline, and circles around two people whom we think we will deplore. But the movie never is exactly what we think it will be. Hare’s writing, further dressed by Malle’s beautiful yet static direction, is varied and observant, and entices us to look past the histrionics of the story and more fixatedly look into its smaller emotional and psychic elements. The performances, all excellent, make these stock characters feel new again. This is not a movie about plot, but subversively how its characters react to a situation they have mostly read about in books, or seen in movies. It's more interested in the predestined tragedies surrounding an affair than the affair itself. And it’s magnetic. A