Josephine Hart’s First Novel, Damage – a sexual confessional told in the voice of a British politician in thrall to his son’s fiancée – stirred up a literary fuss in 1991. What Time praised as Hart’s “fastidious language,” Newsweek. slagged as “heavy breathing.” Expect the same love-hate reaction to this faithful film version, beautifully directed by Louis Malle from a script by David Hare (Plenty). No harm should come from the NC-17 rating ruckus. It’s just another “yikes, a penis!” overreaction from the moral watchdogs.
There is a problem: Other people’s uncontrollable passions make many Americans giggle. A Woody Allen, Amy Fisher or Sol Wachtler supply exploitable agonies for parodies, thrillers, tabloids and talk shows. But serious attention is rarely paid. Malle may change things. The gifted French filmmaker dealt compassionately with adultery (The Lovers), incest (Murmur of the Heart) and child prostitution (Pretty Baby). In Damage, he puts a touchingly human face on sexual obsession.
Jeremy Irons plays Stephen Fleming, a doctor turned member of Parliament. His wife, Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), and her influential father, Edward (Ian Bannen), are pushing him toward high office. He’s the ideal candidate – a well-meaning drone untouched by scandal or emotion.
That is until he meets Anna Barton Juliette Binoche), the mistress of his journalist son, Martyn (Rupert Graves). Suddenly he’s ripping off Anna’s clothes, wrapping her legs around his neck, screwing her against walls and burying himself in a consuming sexuality he’s never known. Irons (Waterland) is remarkably good at showing long-dormant feelings. And Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) finds vulnerability in a woman of cruel passivity outside of the bedroom.
Damage isn’t about lust; it’s about the way desire is linked to pain. Anna’s tragic secret – unfair to divulge here – is revealed by her mother (a pungently wry and elegant portrait from Leslie Caron). “Damaged people are dangerous,” Anna tells Stephen. “They know they can survive.” That theory is tested when Martyn finds Anna in bed with his father and control proves to be an illusion for everyone. Ingrid is driven to a near breakdown. Standing naked before her unfaithful husband, she rages at her body and his indifference. Richardson is extraordinary; it’s a brave, award-caliber performance.
The fiercely erotic and deeply moving Damage casts a hypnotic spell and without moralizing. Stephen is left staring at a photo from his past. The image recalls a line from the book: “I have sometimes looked at old photographs of the smiling faces of victims and searched them desperately for some sign that they knew.” Malle’s psychological detective story doesn’t turn up all the answers, but his film is no less mesmerizing for rising to the challenge.