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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 22, 1993


Louis Malle
Jeremy Irons;
Juliette Binoche;
Miranda Richardson;
Rupert Graves;
Leslie Caron;
Ian Bannen
Under 17 restricted

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Aren't students supposed to be at the cutting edge? Before they graduate into the world of Babbitry, isn't it their duty to stage sit-ins, protest corporate immorality and line up in droves for racy foreign films? Judging by a recent sneak preview of "Damage," those days are gone. The collegiate audience invited to watch Louis Malle's sexually mature movie greeted it with squeaky clean titters and raucous befuddlement. Clearly, this was no "Top Gun."

It's not that "Damage" is a Great Misunderstood Classic. But despite its unevenness, it deserves its own audience. Based on Josephine Hart's brutal novel, the story's about a bizarre extramarital affair between middle-aged politician Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.

Doctor-turned politician Irons is living a perfect life in England. He has a beautiful devoted wife (Miranda Richardson) and two charming adult children (Rupert Graves and Gemma Clark). A minister in the government, he is being touted as a potential prime minister. All of a sudden -- all of an immediate sudden -- he sets watery eyes on Binoche, who is his son's girlfriend. The enraptured gaze is returned.

They begin a clandestine, highly passionate affair but continue their surface lives. Irons becomes increasingly obsessed with her, while maintaining his role as friendly father and upstanding husband. He even secretly follows Binoche and his son to Paris one weekend. Things become insanely complicated when Graves and Binoche (to Irons's appalled surprise) announce their engagement.

This is the kind of movie made for the "Last Tango in Paris" generation. Perhaps you've seen this endangered species. They're the ones with thinning hair, reading the New York Times in the children's playground, their aging Volvos parked legally. But even they are not as young, adventurous (or is that pretentious?) as they used to be. Even they might find problems with this movie. Its subject matter, after all, is about psychological damage beneath the fabric of ordinary life. Its emotional climate is brutal.

The initial attraction between Irons and Binoche, by the way, is the point at which the young audience began laughing. The Gaze seemed frivolous and immediately immoral. But in the book, this mutual impulse is the first real (and quasi-moral) reaction in Irons's life. The reader has been informed of his antiseptic existence, his soul enclosed in a box. Binoche's character tears his lifelong pretense wide open. In the movie, this under-the-surface connection is murkily apparent at best.

I won't reveal what becomes of them or Irons's family, but let's just say the book and film are not called "Damage" for nothing. Much has been made of the movie in Europe, both positive and negative. But, in this R-rated version (its original cut was rated NC-17) the sex is practically coy, compared to "Basic Instinct" and "Body of Evidence." In addition, director Louis Malle has clipped off the book's uglier, more sadomasochistic edges and jettisoned a rather important character -- a psychiatrist familiar with the Binoche character's significant history.

So, what do we have here? A problematic movie, based on a problematic book, that's not for everyone, and that might not even be for all the people it is meant for. Hmmm. Yet there's something fascinating about it and, believe me, it ain't the sex. Perhaps it's Irons's and Richardson's haunted performances, or Binoche's highly credible weirdness. Whatever it is, compared to the likes of "Top Gun" and "Basic Instinct," "Damage" is far more compelling and far less false.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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