Damage

1992, R, 111 min. Directed by Louis Malle. Starring Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Ian Bannen, Leslie Caron, Gemma Clark.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Jan. 29, 1993

Based on Josephine Hart's best-selling novel, Damage recounts a man's attempt to fathom the unfathomable, with tragic results. Dr. Stephen Fleming, a high-ranking member of the British Parliament, seems destined for great things, but something's amiss. The dispassionate, controlled distance he puts between himself and everything else has set him adrift in an unspeakable loneliness. Enter the enigmatic Anna, his son's twentyish girlfriend whom he meets at an embassy cocktail party -- their eyes lock for an uncomfortable period of time, few words are spoken between them -- and, in an instant seeming like an eternity, the bloodless existence Stephen has always known immediately gives way to inexplicable compulsion, a sexual fixation for which he risks the loss of his family, his career, and -- perhaps most important -- the order he has imposed on the world. The Spartan style of screenwriter David Hare (Plenty) is particularly well-suited to translating Damage to the screen -- he succinctly establishes Stephen's repressed character in the film's initial scenes -- but his overall success in this endeavor is mixed. Although intentionally mysterious, the character of the “damaged” Anna is often so cryptic that you want to attribute ulterior motives to her aggressive participation in the illicit affair -- like Stephen, you want to make sense of the insensible. The revelation that her teenaged brother's obsession with his sibling prompted his suicide years ago only muddies the waters of her character, suggesting an uncontrollable power over men that you objectively can't see. It does, however fit into the psychosexual context of Stephen and Anna's couplings -- clumsy and rough, neither erotic nor sensual, their copulations are staged and awkward, violent ballets of inarticulate primality. (They do it publicly in the doorway of a building off a Paris street; in the room next to the one in which Stephen's wife sleeps; on everything and the kitchen sink in Anna's apartment, Fatal Attraction style.) In this respect, Damage brings to mind Last Tango in Paris, although Malle's elegant, precise direction is drastically different from Bertolucci's work, a film that celebrates the loss of inhibition and control. Although relentlessly somber, Damage offers a perverse humor in the idea of father-and-son rivalry over the same woman: it's like the Oedipus complex in reverse. This is especially true when social situations bring everyone together in the same room, and you become an accomplice to the horrible truth. (The scene in which Stephen's son and Anna announce their engagement is embarrassing and shocking in its implications, yet funny.) As the complacent wife who instinctively distrusts her beloved son's fiancee, Richardson takes the top acting honors in the film; she seems most like a real person, rather than a cipher. In one scene towards the film's end, she lets loose with a scream and sob that comes from the very core of her soul, an exhortation of anguish and pain that -- unlike most of Damage -- is both unfathomable and understood.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Louis Malle Films
Elevator to the Gallows
...

May 21, 2019

Murmur of the Heart
...

May 21, 2019

More by Steve Davis
Trial by Fire
Cameron Todd Willingham story deserves a better retelling that trusts the evidence

May 17, 2019

Rafiki
Kenyan LGBTQ drama is a miracle solely for existing, yet also a vibrant, colorful romance

May 3, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Damage, Louis Malle, Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Ian Bannen, Leslie Caron, Gemma Clark

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle