Louis Malle often chose controversial themes as a way of exploring the human condition, yet he generally avoided a sensational treatment, preferring understatement. In Damage, his penultimate film, he pushes the envelope more than usual on the subject of all-consuming sexual passion. He always gave sexuality its due place in life and this take on it had already been the subject of Les Amants made in 1958. But here it is less lyrical, more explicit, and the consequences are shown. The big difference lies in the title; rather than the bursting of love into the lives of two people who are fundamentally well-adjusted, Juliette Binoche's character, Anna, is suffering from a trauma caused by her past which allows her to be involved with a young man - played by Rupert Graves - and his politician father at the same time. The father becomes totally obsessed by her, and the question is not only where will it all end, but also what is driving this young woman. Binoche brings great allure and mystery to the role, and the premise is intriguing, as a sly portrait of an upper-middle class English family is deftly filled in. Miranda Richardson acts with extraordinary intensity in one scene, and is completely convincing as the wife, while Leslie Caron's presence adds a certain glamour - even to what there already is - as Anna's mother. She bears a certain facial resemblance to Binoche that makes the casting ideal. Without making anyone seem better than they are, Malle manages to extend understanding to everyone, refusing to judge. It is ultimately the strength of the film, which contrasts starkly the public life of a political figure with what may be felt inwardly of great intensity. The intimate scenes are quite startling in their abandon, drawing on associations with Jeremy Irons from The French Lieutenant's Woman and Dead Ringers from the previous decade. Rather better than Woody Allen's Match Point because it gives a deeper feeling of humanity to proceedings, it doesn't quite have the real magic of his very best work, possibly because of a relative distance both from the world shown and the actors compared to his American films with Susan Sarandon, for instance, or Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory who created their own script in My Dinner With Andre.
I don't know whether I've ever watched a film in which I identified more with all the characters than I did in this emotionally wrenching masterwork from the late, great Louis Malle. It is part of the genius of Malle to, like Shakespeare, make every character real and to see and present the depth of even those slightly off stage.
I could begin with the youngest, the daughter Sally (Gemma Clarke) who says little and is always at a slight distance, her serious face in the backseat of the car seemingly thinking dark thoughts, her face down the hallway at night, seemingly knowing that her father has committed adultery with her brother's fiancée--yet not knowing. Louis Malle wanted a certain expression on her face; he wanted the primeval depth of her character as a being that knows more than it knows to be etched upon the screen. And this is because what she knows and doesn't know is what we all know and don't tell ourselves, namely that there is a part of our nature that is not under our control, a part of our nature that can cause not just damage, but disaster. And we are helpless to even see it coming let alone stop it.
In the wife, played with precision and finesse by Miranda Richardson, we see a complex and open person who expresses herself with subtle incisiveness in little gestures and poignant pauses, but then when it all comes crashing down, she speaks with the passion of cold steel cutting into flesh.
Juliette Binoche's enigmatic Anna pulled me in the way she easily vacuumed in Jeremy Irons' high toned minister, Stephen Fleming. She was a low pressure area of enormous force that sucked Stephen to her like some bit of fluff and made him demand incredulously "Who are you?" while realizing that until now he never knew himself and what he could feel. For those who are more familiar with the Juliette Binoche of, say, The English Patient (1996) or Cache (2005), the pure sexual power that she can radiate on the screen may surprise you. Here her power is in what seems like pure surrender. But it is Stephen Fleming who is surrendering.
Anna's mother, played with a nuanced directness by Leslie Caron, is one of those women who say whatever is on her mind regardless of the circumstances, often to the great embarrassment of everyone present. Yet at the end we see in her an instinctive wisdom that in retrospect makes it right that she should speak so candidly and without guile. If only Stephen had listened to her! If only he had understood that what she said was to be taken literally and as a grave warning. Of course in such matters, warnings are of no avail.
Louis Malle remarked in the interview that is on the DVD that Jeremy Irons felt that his character had to be played in some sense "as himself." He would be not only naked to the audience in a physical sense (he was; beware prudes) but also as an emotional human being. He needed to project the fall from all that is proper and circumspect to become someone who would grovel before a passion he did not know existed within himself. He had to go from high dignity to abject humility. Anna was the siren's call and he her chosen sailor. He could not resist even though his passion for her would destroy everything he had, his career, his wife and family, his reputation, his personal homeostasis. He would think that, yes, I must leave my wife and go with Anna, and she would have to tell him that you can't do that, your son would hate you.
And then there is Anna's passion, not just in the physical, but in the deeply emotion sense of the irrational when she says "Do you think I would consent to marry Martyn if I could not have you?" As we see it is only the wife who knows and expresses, after it is all over, the obvious truth: "Did you think you could go on like this every day into the future?"
Well, when you think about it, of course not. Yet neither Anna nor Stephen, both blinded by the wild passion they felt for each other, knew the terrible state of danger they were creating. Anna's sin is that of arrogance to think she could satisfy both the father and the son and could manipulate them like toys on a string and nobody would be the wiser. And Stephen's failing is really that of a child-like surrender to this flood of emotion and passion that Anna evoked in him. He, even more than she, is irrational and blind.
Did she love him? Did he love her? And what is love? it might be asked. Long ago I once said to a young woman, "I love you," and she said what Anna says to Stephen, "I know." Such an answer should be an eye opener, but neither I nor Stephen noticed at the time.
Seldom have I felt so much emotion while watching a film. I have seen most of Malle's work, and he is always personal and deeply involved with his characters; but I think here he has created, if not a masterpiece, at least a most compelling story of what it is to be human and to fall from grace. I think it is only right that it took a combination of human error (the key left in the lock by Stephen) and the callous hand of fate that sends Martyn over the railing to bring about his modern tragedy. And, as in all great works of tragic art, the seeds of destruction are there in the psyches of the characters like the heel of Achilles.
Here's a quote from Anna that foreshadows the ending: "Damaged people are dangerous because they know they can survive."
on 5 April 2016
The film is a morality tale regarding one of the Seven Deadly Sins — lust. It illustrates how the sin can seduce, debase, abandon and destroy one. It’s an anti-romantic romance or existential love story that contains a grim moral sting in its tail. It says there is no special woman for the man who seeks her. He may think she is special and for a time be fooled into feeling it, but in the end his delusion will lead to disillusionment. She was different: or so he told himself. But in truth she was as flawed as all women and all persons are. Blinded by lust, he could not see it, or didn’t want to. Passion became everything, a desire that consumed him.
Neuroscience says we are conditioned by biology to see only the good during the early stages of love with our lovers, high as we are on the natural brain chemicals of dopamine and phenylethylamine and on hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine.
Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons) is chemically high, besotted, mad for Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). Simply by breathing, existing, being near him, she arouses his carnal appetite. Desire leads to possession, and possession, in one form or other, to murder.
Beyond the problem of carnality and the damage lust can do, is the social problem of Anna in relation to Stephen. She’s the French fiancee of Martyn (Rupert Graves), Stephen’s son. Thus she’s also Stephen’s future daughter-in-law. Stephen is married to Ingrid (Miranda Richardson). Anna therefore becomes a kind of double adulteress, sleeping with both father and son.
What demons have led her to this way of living? We see glimpses of her troubled past through scraps of conversation about it. These confessions mainly take place during love breaks in sex sessions with Stephen. She and her younger brother (two years younger) were close as children back in France. They didn’t play with other children, only with themselves. This went on endlessly in the apparent endlessness of childhood. But time did pass and eventually changed things. They became teenagers and Anna became pretty, attractive, noticed. Other boys and even grown men wanted her time and other things she had. She became aware of this, gradually growing more distant from her brother. He took the change badly, becoming asocial and highly jealous of her suitors. He fought with one of them and had a nervous breakdown. Eventually he died from heartbreak, though the official cause of death was marked as suicide.
Since then Anna has lived with betrayal, or her sense of it toward him. She hates how she behaved and has nightmares. She misses him and wishes she could somehow bring him back to life to apologise to him. Her regard for herself is low, her regard for men even lower. Her abuse of sex and others may be a kind of penance, a punishment for wrongdoing.
Heretofore she has sought out punishing men — those who maltreat her for her sins. But Martyn, Stephen’s son, is different. He is gentle, loving, kind. He seems to have rescued her, given her a fresh start, a chance to change and reinvent herself. Even the mother of Anna recognises this and considers Martyn a godsend.
But while this family good cheer is occurring the seeds of depravity are already being sown. Stephen is wracked by guilt, of course. How can he look at his wife? How can he face his son? What would he say? How could it even be said? And so he goes deeper — deeper into deceit, evasion, guilt, remorse.
It’s hard to know how Anna feels. If she seems cold, it could be the result of her emotional damage, the guilt she feels for having caused (she thinks) her brother’s death. Her mother thinks it best forgotten, a lamentable tragedy that happened long ago. He wasn’t the first nor will he be the last sensitive, confused misunderstood adolescent who couldn’t cope with the demands of the adult world. Anna probably hates her mother for this cold detachment. She never says so, but doesn’t have to. Anna is truly alone, her brother lost because of her selfishness, her mother unlovable, a father no one speaks of, if he exists.
Martyn is Anna’s chance for redemption. She knows it, may even want it. But the moment she sees Martyn’s father she forgets her new role, giving Stephen a look he reads as unmistakable. Moral, I guess: you can’t teach an old rabid dog new tricks. It isn’t that Anna has demons. It’s more like they have her. She’s bewitched and will cause damage because she herself is damaged.
Stephen, we think, should have known better. Perhaps he did. But there are other pressures and forces bearing down on him. He’s respectable. He’s successful and middle class, a bureaucrat for Britain in the European Parliament. He shuttles between London and the Continent, an important man. People look up to him, including his wife and son. So do some members of the government, because he is nothing if not reliable, competent, dedicated, charming and intelligent. He’s irreplaceable. In other words, he’s a sitting duck for Anna. He’s probably never done with a woman the things he finds he can do with her. From the body language and tone of voice he uses with Ingrid, his wife, there was never any passion between them, or if there was it existed long, long ago.
In short, Stephen can’t help himself. If love or lust is a drug, he’s hooked, an addict now. She’s his smack, his high and abandonment. When in congress with her he’s a different man, a vital one it feels, whereas in the suit and tie and respectable career in Brussels or Paris he feels castrated. She’s like a spring breeze. Fresh air like this never tasted so good or sweet.
But of course he’s doomed. He probably even knows it before his destruction arrives. He’s not stupid, just weak and foolish.
The film is old and obscure (1992), and one of the few made in English by the great French director Louis Malle. Time has not been kind to it. The modern technologies of filmmaking have worked to make its cinematography look flat, washed out, grainy. The film has not physically aged well. This applies to the sound as well. Jeremy Irons, being British, and public-school educated at that, is a bit of a mumbler. I love his voice (it’s deeply resonant and emotive), but he hardly opens his mouth when he speaks. One strains to hear what he’s saying, the rewind button becoming one’s best friend (along with the volume control).
But bless Malle for being French, not English. I don’t mean this as a knock on the English; I say it to praise the French, as many others never do. If lust is damaging, as the film’s title says it is, we should be made to see how and why. We are. Malle does not hold back. This isn’t pornography, but it’s about as close to being it without being so. The lovers, as they had to be, are passionate. Floors and furniture are not obstacles; they are invitations. They whet the appetite and stimulate the imagination. Stephen, as stated, used to be drab, a buttoned-down British bureaucrat. No more. Lust turns him into Tarzan or King Kong. This transformation is astonishing, even to him, or especially to him, and he tends to like it while it is happening, unlike after the fact when he’s a picture of abject misery.
Feminist complaints and critiques of the film are certainly valid. Why the woman always? Woman as temptress, siren, harlot. In the beginning life was good, peaceful, harmonious. But no, she had destroy it, handing the poisoned apple to the uncorrupted Adam in the Garden of Innocence. She’s to blame. She brought sin and disgrace into the world. The film plays out like this, Stephen its victim, Anna its cause. But of course this is patriarchal nonsense. It always takes two. If there is blame, both share in it.
The damage is near total, two marriages destroyed — that of Stephen and Ingrid, and of Anna and Martyn, a marriage that cannot occur now. Trust is also obliterated. Ingrid divorces Stephen, and what can Anna ever say to Martyn? The selfish and self-indulgent behaviour of Stephen and Anna have sent out ripples of misery everywhere.
Love in a way is like religion: you have to believe in it to make it real. If you don’t, it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it’s a case of mutual exploitation, two parasites sucking pleasure from the other. Such a romantic set-up seldom lasts, as transience is in the nature of carnality. What seemed so special and magical at the time was just a projection of desire, a wish fulfilment that failed.
Conclusion: we delude ourselves in our elusive search for happiness. Or at least happiness defined as it is here: sexual possession of another. The voiceover at the end by Jeremy Irons in his sad, beautiful, weary voice brings things to a sobering end. Some years have passed and Stephen is now in a hot, dusty country, perhaps in Spain or Morocco. He tells us:
“It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world. I travelled until I arrived at a life of my own.
What really makes us is beyond grasping. It’s way beyond knowing. We give into love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters…
I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident in an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was no different from anyone else.”
on 19 June 2007
After meeting his son's (Martyn, played by Rupert Graves) fiancee, Anna (Juliette Binoche), Dr Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons), a member of parliament, becomes wild for her and soon they start an obsessive sexual affair. They would seize every single opportunity they could to see each other and f***. They just f***. Their physical desire for each other is insatiable. They always want more. Dr Fleming completely forgets about his son and his wife. Anna obviously has issues about remaining faithful to her future husband. Dr Fleming and Anna keep seeing one another secretly. Their sexual expression is like exploding volcanoes. Until one day, Martyn has got Anna's new address and finds that the door to the room is unlocked...
This film is not just about an ordinary extra-marital affair. It is about sheer self-indulgence and ultimate obsession. Compared to 'Unfaithful', the elements in this movie is far more intense and in a way, this is almost about incest. I wouldn't say all cases of adultery are unforgivable, for people fall in love/becoming attracted to someone for a reason. But this film is about pure lust (although 'Unfaithful' is also about desire), not love. In the end, Dr Fleming and Anna must confront the dire consequences...
I personally think this film is quite dazzling. The performances are superb, in particular the breakdown scene in which Miranda Richardson performs. Certainly, 'Fatale'/'Damage' is for adults only. These two are simply crazy about each other, in the case of sex. In this sense, passion is abused and misused. Nevertheless, this is a great work. If you're after cinema sexual intensity, this flick is for you.