Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
Damage (1992), much his Irons’ previous film Waterland (1992), appears to be another prestige picture right in his wheelhouse. It’s based on a best-selling novel, with a reputable director (Louis Malle), and an excellent cast (Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Peter Stormare, etc.). Regrettably, I was unable to find a copy of Waterland, but I was able to see Damage. I’ve never before laughed so much at Jeremy Irons film in my life.
If you saw its trailer, or Siskel and Ebert’s multiple recommendations for the film (where I first heard of it), this may surprise you. After all, the story is about the passionate affair between a member of Parliament and his son’s fiancée, with Freudian imagery abound. Critics found it favourable, its stars excellent actors, and by all accounts the film looks good. But make no mistake, the film is trash, total lurid melodrama coated as a prestige picture.
Its trashy nature comes from the book it’s based on, a romance novel by Josephine Hart. The film is fairly accurate to the book, which isn’t necessarily in its favour. Damage revels in the seedy nature of the illicit affair, particularly graphic sex scenes that pepper early parts of the movie. Yes, they serve a purpose in illustrating how wrapped up Irons’ character Stephen is in passion, and illustrates the push and pull of control in his relationship with Anna, his son’s girlfriend turned fiancée, but the film itself says nothing new or relatively substantive. The film’s message is about exploring the damages (get it? GET IT?!) that love and sex cause, tossing out tawdry Freudian symbolism with an air of stale sophistication.
It’s predictable in the way that all affairs stories are. When Stephen asks what truly killed her brother, whom Anna is utterly fixated with, I knew she was going to say “love”. And indeed she does. Such predictability isn’t necessarily bad if it’s a good story told well. But this is pulp pretending to be art.
This isn’t to the say the film doesn’t understand how Freudian symbolism works, in fact, it’s Damage‘s clever use of symbolism that kept me intrigued in the film. The colour of clothing is often symbolic of the passionate relationship Stephen and Anna share, and the strange kinship they feel. Stephen will hold phallic objects such as a cigar or a cane, and when the film’s plot shifts toward the implied rivalry between Stephen and his son Martin (Rupert Graves), the film does crackle with delight. (They play pool in one scene, a game where you literally hit balls around with phallic objects! But I digress.) But this added symbolic layer can only improve a lurid tale so much, merely masking the trash.
The film is trash, but it is delicious trash. I was howling at some scenes, particularly the sex scenes, because otherwise the only other reaction I could have would be revulsion. There is the squick factor of a love affair between an older man and a younger woman because of unequal power dynamics, though it’s significant to note that Binoche’s elusive character is never diminished. No, instead, the early sex scenes appear utterly ridiculous, with a reverse Green Eggs and Ham approach to where they have sex (On the stove! In the Hall!). This kind of perversion is not dissimilar to Irons’ other roles; he often plays seedy characters, and has practically made a career out of it. But here, while he doesn’t play a despicable person, the perversion remains.
I find it interesting that Jeremy Irons recently commented on the voyeurism of these scenes, for while they do illustrate the shifting nature of control in their relationship and intentionally avoid nudity, I ultimately found their effect distancing and difficult to watch. Now, I did literally distance myself from my screen when watching these scenes, for reasons I’m still not sure of. Part of it was watching it with my partner, who vocally mentioned how seedy this was right from the start, colouring my vision of the entire film from the get-go. Part of it was having seen so many serious Jeremy Irons films that watching him writhe around naked is just humorous to me. And part of it is that the scenes themselves just feel baffling. Was Malle trying to distance ourselves form enjoying the passion onscreen? The actors have chemistry, but I never found the scenes sexy.
This film reminds me of another prestige trash film I saw recently, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012). Whereas that film relishes in Southern trash stereotypes, aiming to shock, this film focuses on the elites of society. In other words, people who have something to lose if an affair is found out. Both are firmly prestige trash films, though Damage at least has a director who understands the basics of cinematography.
At the very least, this film has taught me a few things. For one, it illuminated how nearly every story of an affair deals with the rich and powerful. This is because they have something to lose. By contrast, Irons’ earlier film Betrayal is a better film because it focuses on the emotional affect such affairs have on relationships. The only thing this film has taught me is one of Irons’ acting traits, what I’ll call the glazed glare, Irons’ character stoically staring, usually coupled with an inability to act or speak. For Irons, it is all about the mannerisms of eye contact in the film, and give him away to other characters that something’s up. Watching this film enabled me to name that aspect, at least.
Now, I don’t think this film is a good film, but it is great trash. I do recommend it for those curious, but if you want something more substantive, I would recommend tracking down a copy of Betrayal. Either way, you’ll have an enjoyable experience.