‘Damage’ (dir. Malle, 1992)


Like Last Tango in Paris and Unfaithful, Damage is a film that explores—with punishing severity—the nightmarish consequences of lustful abandon. The acting excels within the category of tense facial tableaux: Jeremy Irons as MP Stephen Fleming, at once wooden and craven, Juliette Binoche’s Anna Barton trancey and transfixing, her gaze by turns pleading and rejecting. But all this thespian potential is confined within what turns out to be a morality tale that lunges toward fatalism (and literally into fatality) just when it’d need to grapple with complexity. The hurt son backs up over the low railing of a high staircase and falls to his death. The father grows his hair long, retreats to some inconspicuous Italianate town, subsists on sparse slices of cheese, all the while living daily with a photograph of himself, son, and their joint ex-lover wallpapering his monastic room. We learn that Anna eventually returned to her adolescent love and bore a child with him. This, reflects Stephen, reveals her to have been the same as everyone else.

What a pedestrian insight—and one nearly irrelevant to this particular story. Anna’s initial refusal to be possessed—the only semi-rigorous premise of the film—has fizzled embarrassingly. Is real life, it turns out, the only place where the human animal can stray from monogamy and be allowed, justly or not, to survive, within society still, and without retracting and contracting into yet another dyad? Has the dyad come to represent the only alternative to alienation?

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