Movies about obsessive relationships tend to provoke wildly personal, love-it-or-hate-it responses. Whether or not they ring true may depend more than anything on how well they mesh with a viewer's own experience of romantic/erotic compulsion. Is it any wonder that films like Vertigo, The Story of Adele H., In the Realm of the Senses, and Last Tango in Paris have been greeted by some as masterpieces and dismissed by others as silly, overheated, implausible? Obsession, by its nature, is implausible. One of the most misguided things a movie can do is try to make total sense of it. Louis Malle's sumptuous Damage casts a true erotic spell; it is one of the few films in recent years to evoke the dizzying pull of sexual obsession from the inside out. Yet this dark, dazzling tale of l'amour fou a salacious soap opera that escalates into tragedy has probably divided people more intensely than any release of the holiday season (it's just now opening nationwide). Simply put, either you go with it or you don't.
Set mostly in London, the film is told entirely from the point of view of Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons), an elegant, 50ish member of parliament who throws over a lifetime of comfortable propriety for a convulsive sexual relationship with his son's girlfriend (later fiancee). The moment the milky-skinned, emotionally ''damaged'' Anna (Juliette Binoche) introduces herself at an embassy party, she lets Stephen know, through her placid, mysterioso stare, that she's his for the taking. Days later, with barely a word having been exchanged, they commence their affair. Still clothed, they writhe around on coffee tables, on floors, up against walls. Is all this contorting sexy? Not in the usual sense. Yet Irons and Binoche, through the rapt intensity of their gazes, their interlocking smiles, create a sense of narcissistic pleasure that's so intimate it's shocking. In Damage, we're watching two people who bond through sex yet remain spiritually separate who've found each other only because they've agreed to use each other.
The movie was adapted from Josephine Hart's 1991 novel, a swank piece of erotic pulp written in a style so high-minimalist it's barely a cut above Bret Easton Ellis. In a miraculous feat of alchemy, Malle and screenwriter David Hare take the book's icy, schematic characters and transform them into flesh and blood. Damage unfolds with a languorous precision it puts the audience (or at least some of it) in a trance. Still, a lot of critics, even those who've acknowledged how beautifully made it is, have found Damage so farfetched that they've accused it of making no sense. For the record: The movie is farfetched and that's the source of its power. For all its drawing-room chic, what Damage offers isn't ''reality'' so much as a civilized erotic dreamscape, an atmosphere at once furtive and heightened, charged with the hidden imperatives of desire.
For Stephen, the affair is sensually liberating he has barely dreamed of sex this intense yet it's also a kind of blasphemy. He has broken a double taboo, betraying his wife (Miranda Richardson) and committing something close to an oedipal sin against his own son (Rupert Graves). As Irons' magnificent, desperate performance makes clear, Stephen, deep down, has to sin, to act against his own better judgment. He's liberating himself and destroying himself at the same time. It was shrewd to cast the sexy, ebullient Richardson as Stephen's wife; we can see that he's not simply turning away from a dried- up marriage. Instead, after spending his entire life pretending that sexual desire could be regulated, controlled, he has created a situation in which sex is the only thing that matters. In Damage, erotic passion is like a sun blot, a magnetic field that both lures and blacks out everything it touches.
After a while, we're let in on why Anna would sleep with her boyfriend's father: She needs sex with someone like Stephen that is, sex as betrayal to reexperience (and relieve) the guilt she feels for her brother's suicide. This bit of psychobabble is the most difficult thing in the movie to swallow. Still, as Binoche plays her, we can accept Anna as a kind of stylized destroyer a dysfunctional femme fatale. Anna's neurotic perversity and need are as real as the lunar yearning in Binoche's eyes.
We know where the story is headed where it has to be headed. Yet when the moment arrives, it has a power that is almost Shakespearean. (The big revelation scene is at once queasy and disarmingly sexy.) Whether you respond to this movie may come down to the question of how far you think people are willing to go to realize their desires. Damage says that they'll go all the way past honor, past rationality, past sin. The movie may not always convince, but when it does it's a cataclysmic peek into the erotic abyss. A-