By DONALD PORTER
That old saw about the third time being the charm certainly applies to “Damage,” film No. 3 within a span of two weeks to address the subject of obsessive love and sex. Infinitely more thoughtful and a lot less explicit than either “The Lover” or “Body of Evidence,” “Damage” takes a clear-eyed approach to its topic, emerging as one of the most compelling adult dramas in months.
Based on the novel by Josephine Hart and directed by Louis Malle (“Au Revior Les Enfants”), “Damage” is a disturbing look at a doomed, destructive romance between Dr. Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons), an esteemed British politician, and Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche), the girlfriend of his son, Martyn (Rupert Graves).
We are left to surmise that prior to this dalliance, Stephen has been perfectly monogamous in his marriage to wife Ingrid (Miranda Richardson). It’s plain to see by the way he charges into the relationship that he’s been repressing his emotions for years, and that Anna affords him the opportunity to release a lifetime’s cache of frustration and sexual denial.
What’s not so apparent is why Stephen is so willing to betray not only Ingrid’s trust, but also Martyn’s. Why would a father pursue an affair with his son’s lover?
Because he’s out of control, that’s why. Initially, he recoils from the affair when Martyn and Anna are finally engaged. But he’s hooked, and-shortly thereafter continues the liaisons.
The film’s most horrifying moment comes just afterward, when Anna confides to Stephen that she surely wouldn’t have consented to marriage to Martyn if her older lover hadn’t been part of the package deal. Stephen’s response is a perfectly evil smile.
What Stephen doesn’t understand, even though Anna warns him, is that she’s been “damaged” by love in the past – there are vague references to an incestuous relationship with her late brother – and since surviving that episode describes herself as “dangerous,” because she knows whatever crisis looms, she will be alive and kicking after the furor subsides.
More than a dark infidelity drama, “Damage” is a film that perceptively investigates the dynamics of an extramarital affair. It’s something that happens all of the time in our society – everyone knows someone who’s been involved in, or touched by, adultery. But movies haven’t been all that great at dissecting the phenomenon, opting more often for the sensational (“Fatal Attraction”) than for stories that possess the ring of truth.
Granted, “Damage” concerns people of privilege and position – not to mention the bizarre father-son-lover triangle – but that aspect of the story only serves to compound the disaster of betrayal with the potential for public humiliation.
Watching “Damage” is troubling, because you know all along that the affair can come to no possible good, and that people will be hurt when it blows up. Just how badly they are hurt is something we’re not altogether prepared for, though.
Malle’s direction is superb. He handles the sex with a frankness that, for the most part, avoids being graphic. There’s plenty of huffing and puffing, but not nearly the nudity contained in the aforementioned “Body of Evidence” and “The Lover;” the other two films that – along with “Damage” – were briefly tagged with NC-17s.
Even with Malle’s sure hand, “Damage” needs strong, believable, passionate actors. Irons is sensational, as is Binoche. But Richardson comes close to stealing the film as Ingrid. The scene in which she takes her husband to task for his betrayal is shattering.
Amazingly, this is Richardson’s third incredible performance since autumn – she previously co-starred in “Enchanted April” and “The Crying Game.” The only question now is: Which performance will be nominated come Oscar time?