Sunday, January 6, 2008
Directed with an eerie ice cold precision by Louis Malle, 1992’s DAMAGE stands as one of the most chilling cinematic essays on adultery in film history. Despite being a critically acclaimed and multi-award winning film time has not necessarily been kind to it in the eyes of many fans, as some seem to find its deliberately overblown austere style to be more chuckle than chill inducing. Personally speaking, as someone who has problems with much of Malle’s work, I still find the film to be an always effective and sometimes masterful production that I never tire of revisiting every few years or so.
DAMAGE started out life as a slim novella by Josephine Hart. I read the book back in the early nineties and was frankly pretty under whelmed by it. David Hare’s adaptation from it for Malle is a much more successful and resonate work and it remains one of the distinguished writer’s best achievements.
Malle was on a real winning streak in the late eighties and early nineties with films like GOODBYE CHILDREN (1987) and MAY FOOLS (1990) reestablishing him as an important and vital director after some adventurous failures like CRACKERS (1984) and ALAMO BAY (1985). DAMAGE would prove to be his penultimate work, as he died shortly after completing the masterful VANJA ON 42nd STREET in 1995. Malle directs DAMAGE like he is performing a very complicated surgical procedure, and his attention to even the tiniest details makes the film noteworthy. At times though Malle’s overtly deliberate style seems to slip and the film has an odd derailed feel about it that is mostly reflected in the rather off pacing and its perhaps too regal nature. Still, Malle is to be commended for managing to pull off one of the trickiest subjects possible, and the fact that film plays as a cold condemnation of class separation and political corruptibility makes it all the more a remarkable achievement.
Jeremy Irons plays Dr. Stephen Fleming, a conservative Member of Parliament on the rise whose life is knocked off its controlled path when he meets his son’s fiancée, a mysterious and beautiful young woman named Anna Barton (played by Juliette Binoche). The two quickly enter into an illicit sexual affair that eventually leads to an overwhelmingly tragic outcome for everyone involved.
As played by Irons, Fleming is a supremely self confident shell of a man who is reduced to rubble by the damaging obsessive relationship that he enters into with Barton. The ‘damage’ of the film’s title though isn’t just referring to the affair but also the harm that can come through when a person dedicates their life to a cold systematic betrayal of necessary emotion and human fragility. Fleming ultimately is a very selfish and foolish man hiding behind a title and position and while Barton is certainly liable for the damage it is her and his family that ultimately deserves the audience’s pity.
Most films that deal with the kind of subject matter that DAMAGE does ignores or at the very least trivializes the family that is torn apart. Thankfully Malle doesn’t do that and one of the most interesting characters of the film is Fleming’s beautiful and supportive wife, played with a terrifying dedication by Oscar nominated Miranda Richardson. Malle and Hare don’t let the selfish Fleming off easy by having a boring caricature of a wife to cheat on, and the final scenes of Richardson confronting him are among the films best moments. We understand and share her shock and Richardson’s scenes in the film probably should have granted her more than just a nomination.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally strong. Rupert Graves does an excellent job of portraying Fleming’s naïve and trusting son as someone who hasn’t yet sacrificed his soul like his father has and Leslie Caron turns in a chilling late period performance as Barton’s mother who understands all too well the allure and power her daughter possesses.
DAMAGE wouldn’t work at all though if the role of Anna Barton had been filled by anyone other than Juliette Binoche. She is breathtaking in the film and plays the simultaneous icy and hot Barton with the kind of cool passionate calculation that hadn’t been seen in cinema since Catherine Deneuve in the sixties. It is the complete opposite to the warm and endearing role she had played in the one film most American audiences would have seen her in at the time, in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, and her performance as Anna Barton is still one of her most shocking.
The film got a lot of press at the time for its sex scenes, which garnered it an NC17 rating. Malle has Irons and Binoche, two great actors who reportedly did not get along during the shooting, play these unforgettable scenes as brutally as possible and they are thankfully as far removed from the typical modern mainstream sex scene as one can imagine. I suspect they are also the deliberately overblown, and almost ridiculous, moments that so many people seem to respond to negatively in the film but they work in relation to the characters and the story that Malle and Hare were looking to tell.
The film is an incredible handsome and austere production and it features a wonderfully evocative score by Kieslowski composer Zbigniew Preisner. The soundtrack to the film is a really beautiful and potent album that deserves a place among Preisner’s best work.
DAMAGE was released just before Christmas of 92 to mostly great acclaim and across the board controversy. It would garner several worldwide nominations for its acting, including a Cesar nod for Binoche, and it performed fairly healthy throughout Europe and became a big hit on home video in the states as fans were given a chance to see it uncut. Criterion released a fine Laserdisc of it in the mid nineties but unfortunately New Line picked it up for its DVD and dropped most of Criterion’s extras.
DAMAGE is one of Louis Malle’s major and most troubling works. While not quite a masterpiece the film is an extraordinary piece with one of the best casts of any film from the early nineties. It is also remarkably fresh and there is very little that is overly dated about it. I much prefer it to many of Malle’s more acclaimed works and I hope Criterion manages to renew its rights to it someday and give it a proper special edition release.