The last few years, from about 9 1/2 Weeks on, have been a sort of golden age for the sex film - I beg your pardon, the obsessive cinematic exploration of physical passion and psychological darkness. Last year, Jean-Jacques Annaud whipped up Britain's own Jane March into a thin lather of exploitative passion in The Lover, while Polanski in Bitter Moon gloated over his ripe new wife as if she was a prize-winning Camembert. Damage is a much more subtly absurd film than any of these, perhaps because for relatively monolithic untruths it substitutes a whole whirling galaxy of psychological fibs.
Jeremy Irons plays Stephen, an apparently self-controlled government minister who has a passionate affair with his son's girlfriend. Irons is almost too ideally cast in the role, since he is a rarity amongst film stars, an actor whose entire register is wintry: bleak smiles and looks of austere suffering. His nearest natural approach to warmth is a thawing. In Damage, he contrives to go on looking haunted even in the course of fellatio.
His infatuation with Anna (Juliette Binoche), a young woman whose life is already clouded by near-incest and suicide, is instantaneous, wordless and mutual. Right from the start, the question is not if they will consummate their attraction, but how soon. The presiding fib of the first half of Damage is that messed-up people have good sex. The grim congress we see is presented as somehow intensely satisfying, though it seems very ugly in terms of its emotional content.
This triangular situation swarms with dark motivation. When Stephen gives that climactic yelp, it seems rather early in the act to have given Anna much pleasure. But far from drafting a letter in her head to an agony aunt about the sexual inadequacy of British politicians, she lies there glittering with satisfaction. At this stage of the game we are allowed to suspect that power is her sexual pleasure. Stephen, meanwhile, is presumably exploring the least common angle of the Oedipus drama, the Laius Complex, where instead of killing his son the threatened father allows him to grow up, and then cuckolds him instead.
As the intrigue deepens, though, it actually lightens in tone and texture. This is a different sort of fib, the fib that erotic obsession can lead on to warmth and communicativeness. The couple's lovemaking becomes less compulsive, but with no loss of intensity. What began in grimness of lip is visited increasingly by smiles, even by romantic accessories like a shared bottle of wine. Even the accompanying music on a sound-track becomes more animated as the affair progresses. Sex that was introduced as driven and pathological becomes healing, with no acknowledgment of the contradiction.
But then there are contradictions all over the shop. Hardly has Anna declared, 'Don't worry, I'll always be there,' than she is announcing that early experiences with her brother have left her with a horror of any sort of possessiveness. Her scars are purely ornamental. The question of whether Stephen's marriage is now sexless is fudged. From the confidence with which Ingrid (Miranda Richardson) applies perfume before going to bed, marital sex is an on-going thing, but the sequence ends inconclusively.
Louis Malle pays great attention to design and setting. London looks bleached and dowdy, nevertheless, even compared to Brussels at dawn, let alone Paris in full morning. British interiors are more alluring. It's easy to become absorbed by the architectural details on offer - walnut panelling in Anna's mews flat, a quietly spectacular country house for Stephen's father-in-law - since there's little temptation to experience the action from inside. The point of view of the film is more Stephen's than anyone else's, though not by much. When he tells Anna that of course, they must leave their other partners and live together, the camera zooms slightly on to her face, but we have no notion what she might be thinking. Logically, she must be reflecting about the power she has, power to destroy or to manipulate, but this is not a strand that is followed up.
Malle uses two rhetorical devices to raise the stakes of his film. One is a fade-to-black between scenes, one of the simplest signals of artiness. The other is a careful use of silence: there may be music for foreplay or afterglow, but often it is withheld during the act itself. This is a subtly disconcerting effect, as if the sound-track too was briefly naked.
The heart is not an organ that sets much store by originality. The original things that can be said about the standard entanglements are by and large dishonest. The paradox is that a first-rate cast like this one can find authentic moments in a story composed almost entirely of false notes. Out of these anagrams the actors spell convincing little sentences of gesture and emotion.
Miranda Richardson gives a particularly fine performance, though it's hard to tell whether her Ingrid is a tragic character or a comic one of an unusual sort. When a glass of red wine is spilled during a tense meal, she throws salt in large quantities and two directions, a handful over the stain to neutralise it, a pinch over her shoulder to avert bad luck. There is clearly some intense emotion bound in with these different flingings, but there is also a definite incitement to laughter.
The film tips over only in its last scene into a comedy that cannot be denied. Stephen has retreated from the world; his hair is long, he is wearing sandals, and he has bought himself a slab of austere cheese for his lunch. A voiceover brings us up to date, as Stephen cuts his cheese with a sorrowing knife into hefty rectangles. On the wall of his room is a monumental blow-up of a snapshot of Anna, and the two men whose lives she has ruined. It's perfectly impossible to imagine anyone placing the order at the chemists' for this penitential altar piece, but that's not the point: by an alchemy that may be art or may only be accident, the bogus pain of the proceeding 100 minutes has been transmuted into a pure incredulous pleasure, at least as good as laughter.
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