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
''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
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