Damage (1992): Louis Malle Menage a Trois–Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Rupert Graves

Speaking of l’amour and that distinctly French concept, “menage a trois,” Louis Malle’s new, English-speaking film, Damage, based on Josephine Hart’s steamy best-seller, with a script by playwright David Hare, is a major disappointment.

Jeremy Irons is vastly miscast as British Stephen Fleming, a cool, always in control, junior minister, groomed for a better position in the parliament. Stephen is happily married to a nice wife (Miranda Richardson) and the father of two sons. That is until he meets at a party Anna (French actress Juliette Binoche), the fianc of his older son (Rupert Graves). Before long–it literally takes one look–Irons engages in an obsessively passionate affair with Anna.

Like The Lover, Damage has received tremendous publicity for its excessive graphic sexuality, which might erroneously enticed viewers to believe the movie is an updated version of Last Tango in Paris, only set in London. Unfortunately, the movie’s sex scenes are its weakest aspect. Though Irons and Binoche make ferocious love on the floor of her apartment, at street corners, outside of a church, etc., neither performer projects a particularly creditable sexual image. Never for a second was I convinced by Irons or Binoche that they were physically attracted to each other; in fact, Irons seems uncomfortable in his naked scenes.

The adulterous affair, which is just as mysteriously enigmatic at the story’s tragic ending as it is in its beginning, is shot by director Malle in the most detached, dispassionate, and standoffish manner–as if he didn’t care about the emotional state of his characters. But by refusing to take a more definite and specific stance toward the tryst, Malle leaves one of the movie’s most pertinent issues unresolved: For a father who admittedly loves his son, there must be a really good reason to engage in such desperate liaison with his son’s fianc.

Worse yet is David Hare’s minimalist, thin-boned script. When Anna tells Irons, “Damaged people are the most dangerous, because they know how to survive,” I knew it was time to cease listening to the dialogue and concentrate instead on the stylized visuals of the movie. It could be that the highly acclaimed Malle (who has given viewers more cinematic pleasures than many other French directors) was simply the wrong filmmaker to attack what is basically a sordid potboiler.

Be warned: at the screening I attended, there was (unintentional) laughter by the audience, possibly due to the silliness of the sex scenes on-screen.