For as long as images have flickered on a screen, romance has been the ever-beating heart of the filmgoing experience, and audiences never seem to tire of seeing lovers in each other’s arms. Yet when it comes to the most concentrated form of passion, the all-consuming amour fou, movies tend to be much more skittish.

Damage, however, doesn’t shrink from taking on this kind of love with all its incendiary qualities intact. Damage’s soul may seem to have more in common with Jackie Collins than Jane Austen, but an impressive creative team has turned out high-class cinema that is carefully controlled, beautifully mounted.

Damage is set at the top of Britain’s social pyramid and, in fact, began as a prestigiously published first novel by British writer Josephine Hart. It became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, and drew into its orbit director Louis Malle, playwright/director David Hare as screenwriter and an excellent cast headed by Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, and Miranda Richardson.

Hare and Malle may initially seem unlikely bedfellows. Hare is a polished writer (best known for the Meryl Streep vehicle Plenty) who knows England inside-out. The French-born Malle has always been fascinated with the extremes of human behavior. From The Fire Within’s mental breakdown to Murmur of the Heart's scrutiny of incest, to the eccentric love affairs of Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, Malle has rarely strayed far from his obsession with obsession. But as disparate as Malle and hare appear, they seem to have understood exactly the kind of project this was and worked with what feels remarkably like a single mind.

Jeremy Irons stars as Stephen Fleming, M.P. first glimpsed smoothly at his ease among the movers and shakers of Britain’s Parliament, he is a favorite of the Prime Minister and seems absolutely assured of greater things to come. A man who does things well and knows it, he has two children and what seems to be a still-vibrant relationship with his wife, Ingrid (Richardson). Yet there are moments, underlined by Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting, disturbing score, when the look on his face tells you it is all somehow not enough.

Then, almost instantaneously, everything changes. Stephen stays for one extra drink at a boring diplomatic reception and into the room walks Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). With her severe haircut and dark silk suit contrasting with an overwhelming air of sensuality, she immediately exchanges a look with Stephen that makes the words they speak well beside the point. But Anna, it turns out, is not just standard issue Other Woman material; she is, Stephen finds out at once, the brand new girlfriend of his son, Martyn (Rupert Graves).

Do either Stephen or Anna care? No, they do not. Caught in the grasp of an unblinking attraction, they waste almost no time in going at it, engaging in frenzied wordless coupling on the bedroom floor, the kitchen sink, and even once making use of the doorway of a convenient church. Living this kind of triple life, deceiving both his wife and his son and having to endure, as Martyn and Anna get inexplicably closer, excruciatingly duplicitous family outings, is as hard as it sounds on Stephen. A man whose tasteful, well-appointed existence has never encountered this kind of out-of-control emotion before, he longs for some kind of structured way to deal with a woman who is simultaneously his dream and his nightmare.

Anna, however, does not want things tidied up. She tells Stephen about a devastating episode in her past and reminds him that “damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Just how dangerous damaged people are is part of what Damage is all about.

Though Jeremy Irons is rather making a career out of playing men tormented by their lives, his anguish and helpless fervor are exceptionally well done, and his face grows increasingly haggard as his situation worsens. And as the wife who distrusts Anna without knowing why, Miranda Richardson was good enough to an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, largely due to a brace of lacerating scenes near the film’s close.

But the engine that drives this film is Juliette Binoche. Best known for a very different role in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Binoche is exactly right as an unfathomable woman whose gaze and actions flinch from nothing A creature of almost pure emotion, with a distant unattainable quality that never leaves her, Anna not only doesn’t flee from chaos, she find in it the comfort that normalcy has never been able to provide. This director’s cut of Damage was rated NC-17, and though there is no lack of unclothed flesh here, the film’s erotic charge comes more from the looks on faces than the positions of bodies. The involvement the actors bring to the scenes, the expressiveness of those looks, makes all the difference. Melodramatic as this story tends to be, the principals manage to play it with unwavering conviction, and their reality remains at the core of all of Damage’s artifice, drawing us in and making us believe.

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