'Damage': Looks can thrill in this stylish yet hollow drama

January 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

One of the great myths of movie romance is this business about The Look. I know it's a myth because it's never happened to me, and it's never happened to anybody I know, and if it happened to some of my buddies, believe me, not only would they tell, they wouldn't shut up about it!

The Look, in its purest form, goes like this: At some dreary function, He sees Her. Then, feeling the presence of His eyes, She looks up and She sees Him. The room falls away, the clock stops, the sky clears, the birds chirp, the hearts melt. In "West Side Story," Tony and Maria break into song. In "Damage," Stephen and Anna exchange five words: "My place, half an hour."

Actually, that's their second conversation. But it's what their eyes were screaming all the time they were making stuffy banter at the party. Complication No. 1: He's married. I know, in movies and sometimes in real life, not so much of a complication . . . but . . . Complication No. 2: She's engaged to his son.

What follows is one of those stylish, obsessive descents into the maelstrom of limbs and tongues and guilt played out against the backdrop of cheesy hotel rooms. It cannot be truly explained, because it represents the irrationality of the erotic impulse. It can only be described, as in the novel by Josephine Hart, or photographed, as in this movie by Louis Malle.

The players are certainly stylish -- chiefly, Jeremy Irons at his most haunted, debauched and dapper, and French actress Juliette Binoche at her most enigmatic, vague and nude. Director Louis Malle, himself a wealthy aristocrat (heir to a French sugar fortune), is most at home in the upper crusts of society where the action takes place. It's all very tastefully lusty and grief-ravaged.

The subtext of the movie isn't obsession as much as regret over a lost life. Irons is Dr. Stephen Fleming, a British member of Parliament, head of some tony committee on the environment, or some such. He lives in a beautiful house with a tony wife (Miranda Richardson), where they have two wines with dinner and go to the country for the weekend. His life is swell, or so it

seems. Yet it's clear from his hollow look and his carefully modulated ironies that the life he's living isn't his: It's a life planned for him by others, a life that others expect him to live for them. Breathes there a middle-aged man who hasn't felt a whiff of this toxin?

That's what makes him so vulnerable to The Look, which is a way of escaping and destroying all that. It's also a bayonet of neurosis aimed at the guts of his callowly brilliant son (Rupert Graves) who is swimming through a journalistic career full speed ahead. Or maybe not at his son the son, but his son the idea -- of youth, of vitality, of possibility, all those things that have fled the father. Unfortunately, his son the man gets in the way.

I detest movies and stories that hinge on absurd accidents, as this one does: Somebody makes a terrible discovery and backs up a good 30 feet to fall backward off a convenient balcony that's only there because some else has irrationally rented an apartment. The movie veers off into chaotic melodrama from there on, except when the otherwise dolorous Miranda Richardson uncorks a scene of such pure animal venom that it all but destroys the movie around it.

And some ideas are not explored. First and foremost is Anna's seething hostility at the Fleming clan, for being Flemings, one supposes. She basically destroys the family, yet the movie insists on treating her like a victim, and offers some tepid theory based on a wretched childhood incident.

The movie is powerful and compelling, if, in the end, quite hollow. It feels as though it were written by T. S. Eliot after spending too much time with the European edition of Penthouse.

"Damage"

Starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.

Directed by Louis Malle.

Released by New Line.

Rated R.

... **

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