CINEMA / Just one look, that's all it took

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I SHUDDERED in sympathy. Jeremy Irons, prostrate on the bedroom floor, has let out a startled yelp of pain. He must have one of those problem backs . . . or maybe it's an attack of cramp? A man of his age, you have to be careful. Hang on, he seems to be forcing a smile, or at least a grim rictus. Yeah, he's going to be OK. He's just made it through his first sex scene in Damage, an appropriate title for a film that depicts love-making as something you should definitely not try at home.

Stylised eroticism is right back in fashion - perhaps it never went out - and movie-makers are bending over backwards (or getting the cast to) in their efforts to steam up the screen. Forget foreplay - nowadays it's a case of near-strangers going straight from cocktail hour to tearing off each other's clothes. One expects this from Hollywood, where close encounters in the bedroom look like the latest fad in a keep-fit routine, but when a director of Louis Malle's stature decides to enter the sexual Olympics it's time to get serious. It probably seemed a good idea roping in Malle to direct Josephine Hart's portentous tale of amour fou among the upper classes: he covered this waterfront as long ago as 1959 in Les Amants.

Unfortunately, whatever passion he may have invested in the project has been all but neutered by David Hare's screenplay, a frosty, one-emotion- at-a-time affair that never comes close to thawing. The story is a simple one - Irons plays Stephen Fleming, a junior Tory minister who seems to have it all - a nice wife (Miranda Richardson), a nice son (Rupert Graves), a nice daughter (Gemma Clarke), a nice big house. Everything about his life seems, sort of, nice, right down to his gaunt good looks and elegant grey hair. Then one night at a diplomatic drinks party he encounters Anna (Juliette Binoche), a svelte sprite in black leather; they lock gazes significantly, mumble pleasantries, and part. When they next meet a deux it's back at her place, and all of a sudden they're off on a dizzy round of wrestling, with the audience as referee. Without exchanging a word, they twist and shove each other into a variety of highly uncomfortable postures, chewing lips as if they've skipped supper for a week. In the course of the film they get it on over tables and kitchen sinks, in corridors and freezing doorways - why, at one point we even catch them in bed.

So a stuffed shirt gets hot under the collar - what else is new? Awkwardly enough, the minister's bit of extra-marital homework happens to be his son's girlfriend. Malle wants us to feel the helplessness of a man who, after making order the cardinal precept of his life, suddenly finds himself sunk in chaos. What we actually feel is bafflement.

There appears to be no dynamic behind this odd coupling, nothing that would unavoidably force them into each other's arms. Call me old-

fashioned, but doesn't grand passion require some small underpinning of ordinariness - like conversation, for example? Irons and Binoche jump all over one another, but we never see them talk about their favourite movies or restaurants, or what they like to read, or whether they drink milk straight out of the carton. The movie has no feel for them as human beings. Malle has given them flaws and left out the flesh and blood: he has staged a chamber piece for ghouls.

A large part of the problem lies in the casting. Irons, impaled on the cross of his passion, has played this stricken soul before. He managed it adequately in Swann in Love, and brilliantly in David Cronenberg's sick psychodrama Dead Ringers, where he had nobody to act against but himself. Here, as the upright, downright, forthright square, he's impossibly abstracted and lugubrious, like a ghost of some other self. At one point he even seems to be fading into the wallpaper, so insubstantial is his presence.

Binoche has little to do beyond looking mysterious, but there's also something monotonous about that porcelain beauty. At first you wonder what on earth's going on behind it; after a long parade of blank looks towards Irons, you cease to care. She might as well have FEMME FATALE tattooed across her forehead, but in case we don't catch on David Hare spells it out: 'Damaged people are dangerous - they know they can survive,' she says, though with Irons banging her head on the floor in a fit of erotic abandon you wouldn't rate her chances.

The interiors around them - opulent tones of honey, beige and caramel - and the clothes they (occasionally) wear suggest privilege and chic, so it's down to the script to hint at their shallowness and vanity. There's a ghastly dinner party in which Binoche lets slip a tragedy in her past, followed by much embarrassed throat-clearing in the English tradition - I couldn't believe my ears when she trilled to Miranda Richardson, 'Thank you for such a lovely evening'. And there's a wonderfully excruciating moment when Binoche makes a sudden announcement and Irons reacts as if a week-old kipper has been hung in front of his nose.

Aside from Richardson, who jolts the film into life with a great howl of grief and rage, nobody throws any conviction into the script. Malle and Hare show us all we need to know about the cruel and perfidious side of the ruling class: did they have to make them boring and desiccated as well? The only thing Damage left me to ponder was the amount of rehearsal time those bizarre sex scenes required: if Malle had asked his leads to grapple with their lines as keenly as they grappled with each other, there might have been something to redeem this exercise in the higher twaddle.

Another conflict between professional integrity and personal involvement can be glimpsed in The Public Eye. Set in wartime New York, the film is loosely modelled on the life and work of Weegee, the tabloid photographer whose pictures caught the everyday pathos of city people.

Joe Pesci plays his fictional counterpart Leon Bernstein - Bernzy to his friends, and everyone else - a snap-

happy loner who is obsessive about his work both as a 'shutterbug' (contemporary slang for a photographer) and as an artist manque. Bernzy hawks his pictorial record of New York around the publishers, to no avail - his work is considered too bleak, too vulgar, to compete in the art market.

The thriller plot concerns a society hostess (Barbara Hershey) who enlists Bernzy's aid to save her nightclub from racketeers, which in turn leads the photographer to expose a war-effort fraud involving rival mafiosi and the FBI. I was hoping the film would delve into the kind of conspiracy horrors Gene Hackman's spooked sound-man unearthed in The Conversation, but director Howard Franklin cleaves to the simpler schtick of love betrayed and mob shoot-'em-ups.

Pesci, chomping on a cancerously thick cigar, brings a shabby dignity to the diminutive snapper, though his elevation to heroic status is a bit rich. The film never gets to grips with its thornier material - the tension between quickbuck opportunism and the humanitarian impulse to help save lives. Maybe, as Bernzy says, 'everybody wants their picture took', but why is the picture more interesting when the body is riddled with bullets?

'Damage' (18): Barbican (638 8891), Chelsea (351 3742), Curzon West End (439 4805), Empire (437 1234), Gate (727 4043), Odeon Kensington (371 3166), Screen on Baker Street (935 2772). 'The Public Eye' (15): MGM Fulham Rd (373 6990), Plaza (497 9999), UCI Whiteleys (792 3324). All nos 071-.