Louis Malle’s “Damage” is a somewhat fascinating film that put me in my mind of that famous Joy Division song about losing control. I say somewhat fascinating, because it seems to be a film of two halves; the first section, in which the characters are introduced, is superb, an arch study in desire and violent lust that, through direction, framing, and the movements of the characters, subtly deconstructs the traditionally toxic connotations that underpin most “old man falls aggressively in love with much younger woman” narratives (this is a film firmly within that genre). Yet the second half seems to conform to nothing more than an able human drama
He is Stephen Fleming, played by Jeremy Irons, a minister quite high up in British parliament; she is Anna Barton, played by Juliette Binoche, a young woman who works in antiques. She is also, crucially, dating Stephen’s son Martyn (Rupert Graves). Stephen is himself married, to his doting wife Ingrid (Miranda Richardson).
These four characters are the main players, although what I found most interesting about these early scenes is that the film takes great efforts to portray them as not existing in a vacuum. A great deal of time is given over to the minutiae of Stephen’s work, and Malle seems to put a lot of effort into placing extras around the central four in such a way that suggests their obliviousness to the outside world. This seemed to change as the film went on, and in some ways the film resembles a sine wave with ever-decreasing oscillations. They grow more insular. This is, of course, somewhat typical of the structure of a film like this.
I do not mean this, necessarily, as complaint. Every film of a “type” has a certain form it must adhere to (or play with), and Malle is obviously an intelligent enough director to keep the film on the right side of hokey third-act thriller (thank goodness). But nevertheless; the early scenes are so rich in directorial subterfuge and playfulness that as the film became embroiled in the mechanics of the plot, I felt ever so slightly deflated.
In films like this, the central concern will always be; is the female character a cipher? From pure description alone, Anna certainly appears to be so. She enters the film alone, and approaches Stephen at a party, already knowing that he is Martyn’s dad. All it takes is one extended look between the pair to know that the two will be seeing much more of each other. Her character is not so much introduced as dropped into the plot, ála deus ex machina. She becomes developed later on, but even then the parameters for her character seem to be defined solely by how men have treated her; questionable. When Stephen enters her house, it is full of creaking wood; a hoary piece of of symbolism indicating that Binoche’s character exists to placate Stephen’s libido.
Yet these are all surface details; Binoche seems to act at odds with the rest of the film, her performance barely masking a coy smile as if to say, “I am in complete control, and I am playing you all”. Without this, the film would be misogynist drivel. Once more, Malle plays up to this; Stephen is indefatigably the pursuer throughout the film, but when it comes to the actual acts of lovemaking (which are frequent), he falls to his knees at her feet. The second time they liaise, she sits in a chair in a manner similar to the way he sits in his steel office; she is cool, composed, and he is fretting and strutting. You constantly wonder whether her character is just in this for a good time, and what her precise emotional investment actually is (only Binoche could do something like this and pull it off).
All of these elements add up to a sly inversion, but a redeeming one, and it leaves the only legitimate claim for misogyny being (without giving away too much of the plot) a playing up to the “black widow” tropes; I would argue this is a reach.
However, the second half does begin, and the film becomes something more conventional. The symbolism falls to the wayside ever so slightly, and we become embroiled in the characters as humans. The film pulls this off, but only just, having only just justified the treatment of these characters as something other than chess pieces in servitude to Malle’s vision. The acting helps, of course (needless to say each of the main players is game and committed), and the setting of the film in a political landscape populated by Jacob Rees-Moggs has a certain charm. It’s never not watchable.
I recommend it; the first half is better than most films of its type, whereas the second half is a very capable version of the kind of films that we’ve seen before. The richness fails to carry over into the film as a whole, but I suspect by the time the gears have changed, most audiences invested in the plot will be invested to the very end.