Entertainment Weekly: 22 January 1993 Father-In-Law of the Bride
Inside ”Damage” — Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche take us behind the scenes of their new film about sexual obsession
By Ann McFerran
On a Sunday in March at the palatial French Embassy in London, tempers and tensions are running high. Daylight saving time has just begun, and both the cast and crew of Damage, already tired, have lost an hour’s sleep. Oblivious to the throng of French extras in cocktail dress, Jeremy Irons paces among the Louis XV bric-a-brac, chain-smoking and looking rakish in a pin-striped suit. Juliette Binoche, who plays the object of Irons’ desire, changes from black ankle boots into suede high heels more appropriate to her blue satin dress, and the cameras roll. ”You must be Martyn’s father,” says Binoche, her huge, unblinking eyes moving over Irons’ face. ”I’m Anna.” Irons appears transfixed. ”Have you known Martyn long?” he utters at last. They stare at each other. ”How very strange,” she falters. After several takes, director Louis Malle, a small, compact figure in corduroys and Reeboks, has what he wants. Binoche slips back into her boots, and Irons strides to his dressing room, trailing tendrils of cigarette smoke. ”That is the moment when Stephen and Anna are naked in each other’s eyes,” says Irons. The Oscar-winning star of Reversal of Fortune stretches his long legs across a dressing-room table. ”There’s no way out from this passion but death.”
A disturbing mix of rough sex, self-revelation, and willful self-destruction, Damage has courted controversy from the first day of shooting, one year ago in the streets of Paris, to its final trial by ratings last month. Irons plays an English politician with an unexciting marriage (to Miranda Richardson), who risks all by becoming infatuated with his son’s French fiancee (Binoche). The lovers’ violent, exotic couplings earned the film an NC-17 before Malle, under protest, trimmed several seconds to get an R. Made for about $13 million, Damage has been a solid performer at New York and Los Angeles art houses since December and will be released nationally Jan. 22. Though reviews are mixed, the film has generated a good bit of Oscar buzz.
But at a price. Between the exhausting shooting schedule and the sometimes strained relationships between stars and director, the four-month shoot turned into an ordeal. At one point, health problems forced Malle to shut down production for three days; in October, after largely completing the film, he had open-heart surgery and recuperated at home in Los Angeles with his wife, Candice Bergen.
And the tensions are not yet ended. Despite the good chance she may win an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Irons’ wife, Miranda Richardson recently alluded in The New York Times to the difficulties of filming: ”Jeremy likes everything to be a collaborative effort. And there were times when I did not appreciate him offering an opinion on something I should do or how I should do it.”
Maybe all the sex had everyone rattled. ”Sex scenes are always a director’s worst nightmare,” says Malle, who, having directed such films as Pretty Baby and Murmur of the Heart, is no stranger to breaking taboos. ”But the audience must glimpse Anna and Stephen’s strange, dark, and rather violent relationship to understand the story.”
Then the veteran director adds, with a sigh, ”This is the most difficult film I’ve ever made.”
Back in his dressing room, Irons reaches for his dog-eared, much-underlined copy of Josephine Hart’s 1991 best-seller Damage, on which the movie is based. “Louis hates me using the novel like this,” he whispers, meaning that Malle insists the actor’s inspiration come from the script alone. ”’Later there would be time for the pain and pleasure lust brings to love,”’ Irons reads, a bit surreptitiously. He puts the book down. ”Those scenes had to be wild, really wild. These two characters are trying to get totally inside each other.” Another low-tar cigarette joins the pile in the ashtray, and Irons adds cheerfully, ”We call them the f— scenes.”
”How could Jeremy say that?” protests Binoche when she hears her costar’s comments. ”This film is not about eroticism or sex, it’s about the obsession to be unified.”
Such differences plagued the production from the start. The very first day of shooting, when Irons and Binoche barely knew each other, called for a scene in which Anna leaves Stephen’s son (Rupert Graves) in a Paris hotel and joins Stephen in the cobblestone street below. Their meeting culminates in a doorway tryst, Binoche, naked underneath her coat, wrapping herself around Irons’ tall, gaunt body.
”That first day was one big argument,” recalls Binoche, pulling her black turtleneck sweater over her mouth and nose. ”I wasn’t prepared to do that love scene.”
”Juliette was wary in those early days and trying to protect herself,” says Irons. ”We were men, wanting to see her body.” To Binoche, who first made a splash in 1988’s sensual The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it seemed that the men only wanted to see, not hear, her.
”’I was so shocked that David (Hare, the screenwriter) and Louis and Jeremy discussed Anna without Josephine (Hart) or me,” she says, biting her lower lip in fury. “Eventually I was invited to join them, but when I said I didn’t think Anna loved Stephen, it was like a revolution, disaster! They thought, ‘Oh, she doesn’t understand her character.’ I felt it was impossible for a woman to share these men’s discussions.”
Even Malle found his temper running short. As shooting progressed he grew increasingly exasperated with Irons’ obsessional interest in his character and references to the novel. When the director finally broke down and shouted, ”This is my film!” the actor shot back, ”Then what am I doing here?”
”I think Louis was perturbed by the breadth of my concern,” Irons says, smiling. ”Jeremy is always a little tense on set,” Malle says with a laugh.
In the relative calm of his editing room, three months later, Malle tries to put his finger on what made this film such an ordeal. ”Somehow you always end up leading the life of your characters,” he says. ”Which is why this film has been so disturbing for all of us. Damage has produced extreme reactions in people. But that, after all, is what I wanted.”