Dr Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons) is a Conservative Member of Parliament, the Minister for the Environment in fact, who at his job is trying to sort out a deal with Brussels that will play a major role in conservation and cleaning up pollution. In his private life, he is happily married to his wife Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), and has a grown up son called Martyn (Rupert Graves) who is about to introduce his parents to his new girlfriend, Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). However, the night before Stephen and Anna met at an official do, and it was as if lightning passed between them: they didn't say much, but they didn't need to, they want a good shag and they want it as soon as possible...
Yes, polite conventions be damned, if you believed the furore about Damage then it was one of the most sexually explicit movies around in the early nineties, but it wasn't much of a furore when it came down to it, more a storm in the censor's teacup. It really belonged to those posh people’s passion dramas like Close My Eyes or the work of Peter Greenaway, and therefore wasn’t particularly erotic when we were meant to feel so bloody miserable about the subject, which here was an illicit love affair between a middle-aged man and his future daughter-in-law. There could have been some sparks struck with that in mind, yet director Louis Malle appeared determined to mine as much tragedy from the plot as possible.
Basing it on Josephine Hart's novel, something of a flash in the pan as far as nineties writers went, there were precisely zero intentional laughs here for what ached to be presented as a farce, though not with these two deadly sincere leads. Gérard Depardieu's nemesis Juliette Binoche especially was intended to come across as an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, but in effect was a cold fish you found it difficult to believe would be so overwhelmingly attractive to Stephen to the extent that he would throw his life away for a shot at her. David Hare penned the script, no stranger to criticising the Tory Party and here capitalising on the then-ruling party's propensity for sex scandals, though they were more often with secretaries and prostitutes than anything more taboo-busting.
Those sex scenes everyone was supposed to be talking about were more stylised than racy: if it was possible for such sequences to be pretentious, then here was your evidence with croaky noises made during ecstasy and the occasional bit of slapping of naked flesh, you did wonder who they were trying to appeal to. Considering the two brightest characters were Richardson's wronged missus Ingrid (who looks far too young for her role, and was) and Anna's mother Elizabeth (Leslie Caron), both far more interesting than the lovers, then you began to ponder the chances given to the audience to tut-tut their way through the melodrama rather than take any more intellectual conclusions away as Malle and company appeared to be keen on.
The fact that it built up to a great final line (albeit in a daft final scene) was not quite enough to rescue what was a chilly test of the patience, though did indicate that the film's point of view might well be shared with our own when we realised there was nothing so special in Stephen and Anna's attraction that could not have been solved by taking a step back and agreeing it simply wasn't worth all the hassle. When the narrative throws up various embarrassments, then tragedies, it was all too much for the icky central union to cope with, and you might find yourself tittering at moments supposed to be heartbreaking or shocking, most blatantly in what brings the affair to a close in the last ten minutes. Even so, Richardson and Caron made a valiant attempt at selling the emotions of the outcome, and almost succeeded, yet the whole thing was so po-faced in its upper middle class horrors that you would have to be dedicated to investing yourself in these characters for any of it to accomplish its goals. Music by Zbigniew Preisner.