Written by: David Hare, based on the novel by Josephine Hart
Directed by: Louis Malle
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves
The French talk of “la petite mort” and in Louis Malle’s Damage, that notion is a far more serious matter. Jeremy Irons plays Stephen Fleming, a cabinet minister who meets Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche) at a party and their immediately palpable mutual attraction is the driving force of the film. Soon after, Stephen discovers that Anna is his son Martyn’s (Rupert Graves) new girlfriend and soon after that Stephen and Anna actively pursue an ardent affair.
Malle’s direction is characteristically unobtrusive, and though he utilizes heavy shadows and elegant sets, he avoids overly-stylish composition that would impede the movement of the plot. The characters in Damage are all absolute upper-crust types who speak with dignity and eloquence, visit their enormous country homes and dare not speak informally around the help. Tonally, Malle seems to detest his characters and though he does not actively present them in a negative light, he does not seem to observe many of them with tenderness. When Martyn and Anna go to Paris on holiday, Stephen leaves work early and flies to France for about 45 seconds of illicit love-making in a doorway on the street with Anna, right under Martyn’s nose. Anna’s mother humiliates her in front of the Flemings without an ounce of sensitivity. Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), Stephen’s wife, speaks coldly about Anna and barely conceals her contempt even when they’re in the same room. Later in the film, Ingrid tells Stephen, with cruel stoicism that it’s “a pity we ever met.”
Malle’s perspective seems to lie with Sally (Gemma Clarke) the Fleming’s young daughter who doesn’t really follow her parents rules, and dates an awkward, strange-looking boy who hasn’t a formal bone in his body. Sally has very little screen time but when she does appear, Malle seems to hold on her with care as she apathetically observes her snooty family systematically destroying each other.
Sex and death are inherently locked together in Damage, and though Malle doesn’t seem to make any direct judgments, he goes out of his way to present sex as harsh and bordering on spiteful. Damage is a well-paced sex thriller with a tightly-wound last act that is carried by a host of intense performances by truly great actors.