UK/France | 1992 | Directed by Louis Malle
Logline: A married politician’s sexual infatuation with his son’s fiancée turns into a dangerous obsession which ruins his life and his family’s.
Louis Malle was fascinated with relationships, both firm and fragile, and power, both internal and external. Damage would be his penultimate cinematic dissertation on the power of attraction and the ruinous effects of obsession. Malle died in 1994. Damage features one of Jeremy Irons most affecting performances (after his dual turn in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers) as Dr. Stephen Fleming, but the Oscar went to Miranda Richardson for her role as Fleming’s devastated wife Ingrid. Caught in the crossfire is adult son Martyn (Rupert Graves), while Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche) escapes with only minor scratches.
Malle directs with a spare elegance, allowing his cast to work the mise-en-scene with their delicate nuances of performance. Dr. Fleming seems to have it all; an excellent position in Parliament, a loving attractive wife, a devoted grown son, and a lovely young daughter Sally (Gemme Clarke). He has a spacious home and a comfortable routine. But he is restless; a creeping ennui is threatening to consume him. Enter Anna, his son’s new girlfriend. Anna has a dark and manipulative agenda, born from a terrible family secret that bears down on her like a ton of bricks.
The scene where Anna approaches Stephen at a function and stares intently into Stephen’s eyes, her own burning with a cold fierce lust, Stephen is completely thrown, yet instantly mesmerized. It is this hypnotic effect that will drive the good doctor to doing very bad things. Jeopardising, not only his career, but his family too. All he can think about is Anna, who does little to dissuade him. But when Stephen decides to turn up in Paris where Martyn and Anna have gone for a lover’s weekend, then Anna pays it on the line. Her upcoming nuptials to Martyn are the perfect foil to continue her clandestine affair with Stephen. But Stephen can’t bear hiding. He’s prepared to leave his wife. Things can only go pear-shaped, which they do, rapidly.
For a film about intense sexual desire the sex scenes are urgent, awkward, rough, even repellent. Yet there is an undeniably erotic undercurrent. Stephen and Anna bang up against furniture, grunting and panting, pushing and contorting. It becomes quickly apparent Malle is more interested in presenting these two philanderers as less than human, animalistic even (according to one report Juliette Binoche walked off set when Jeremy Irons became too physical). They are both intelligent creatures, attractive and sophisticated. But the secret union they’ve formed has turned them upside down. They have become base and destructive. For Anna her psychological baggage comes from struggling to deal with the death of her brother who she was very close to. For Stephen years of poker-faced, chilly presentation as a political figure has resulted in his emotions finally running away from him, his composure collapsing, his guard down.
As Stephen and Anna continue to pursue their sexual dalliances it becomes obvious only a catastrophe can occur to drive a wedge between them. There’ll be more than tears before bedtime. There will be blood. There will be damage, and much of it will be collateral. In Malle’s homeland the movie was re-titled Fatale (as it was also called in Canada), which indicates just how disastrous the denouement is. But the narrative doesn’t end with blood on the floor. There is Natasha Richardson’s Academy Award-winning breakdown, and finally an epilogue, a further integral part of the aftermath which shows where the disgraced doctor has ended up; lonely and alone with only memories, regret and a stale baguette.
Was the affair worth the tragedy? A silly question, of course, but in the heat of fevered desire it can be hard to dispel the harsh consequences that will inevitably present themselves. The kind of intense immoral passion harnessed by Stephen and Anna, regardless of their own reasoning, can only bring sorrow, heartbreak, and despair, as witnessed by Ingrid’s abject shock and hysteria, and as predicated by Anna’s mother Elizabeth (Leslie Caron), who warns Stephen to pull away. Anna, like some kind of beautiful androgynous demon, dissolves into the background; “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”