The German concept of liebestod (explored by such varied artists as composer Richard Wagner and author Thomas Mann) proposes the idea that true love cannot be attained without the complete abandonment of the will and submission to suppressed passion (hence, the literal translation of love and death). From the novel by Josephine Hart, Louis Malle’s Damage is a harrowing, emotionally charged, modern-day adaptation of this theme. Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons) is a reserved, middle-aged government minister who, during a cocktail party, is approached by an enigmatic young woman named Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). She introduces herself as his son Martyn’s (Rupert Graves) “friend”. From the initial encounter, it is clear that there is an immediate attraction between them. Despite Stephen’s marriage to Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), and Anna’s relationship with Martyn, they become involved. She reveals to him that she is “damaged”, the object of her brother’s incestuous obsession, who committed suicide rather than face losing her. Accustomed to order and structure, Stephen is overwhelmed by the intoxicating Anna and, for the first time in his life, his passion is out of control. Soon, he, too, is obsessed with her, follows her to Paris, and arranges a rendezvous: “e;I can’t see past you”. The discovery of their affair shatters Stephen’s fragile, idyllic existence. Binoche’s portrayal of the alluring, mysterious Anna is intriguing. Note the cocktail party scene where her nonverbal presence alone suggests that there is an understanding between them. Damage is a riveting, highly sensual, and well-crafted film about love, betrayal, and emotional destruction.
The mystery of the elusive Anna is an important aspect of the film (as Catherine is in Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim). She is a seeming paradox: victim and aggressor, vulnerable and fiercely independent, guarded and uninhibited. Visually, her enigmatic persona is developed using dark clothing and minimal room lighting. She speaks with a slight, obscure accent, attributed to her extensive travels as a child in diplomatic circles, an implied rootlessness. Symbolically, a pivotal scene involving a spiral staircase seemingly reflect her enigmatic history as well as Stephen’s moral descent. We are drawn to her in a futile attempt to see past the image, and understand who she is. However, like Stephen Fleming, we are left hollow after the eviscerating experience… with nothing but memorable images on which to reflect and reconstruct the enigma of the unreconciled pieces.
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