Reviews — November 2
I recently stumbled across a great website of movie lists compiled by Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, and I was surprised to see that Louis Malle’s “Damage” is absent from a compilation of 50 films about sexual obsession — a list that includes obvious candidates such as “Vertigo,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and “Basic Instinct.” Surely, Travers has seen it. Did he not like it? Or did he feel “Damage” wasn’t worthy of the list?
Well, I did like it, and I’d even read the book first. This 1992 drama stars Jeremy Irons as a British cabinet member who takes up with his son’s fiancee, played by Juliette Binoche, an arrangement that can lead only to … well, damage. Serious, permanent damage. It may be a cliché, but Irons and Binoche really do set the screen on fire; one never doubts that they are intensely, inexplicably drawn to each other. And one never doubts the awful trajectory of their choice.
Malle directed the cerebral “My Dinner With Andre.” Here, he approaches a lurid scenario with maturity and intelligence, producing a serious film for adults that is simultaneously classy and thoroughly unsettling. Most of all, it’s elevated by a remarkable assemblage of actors, including Miranda Richardson as Irons’ wife. The role won her a well-deserved Oscar.
“Damage” (1992) Directed by Louis Malle, based on Josephine Hart’s novel.
Starring Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Rupert Graves and Miranda Richardson. 111 minutes. Rated R for adult situations, graphic sexuality, language.
Isabel and her husband, the new doctor in a Yorkshire village, have agreed to live in a cheap rental so they can save money for their own house. But “Is” is always cold, and with post-World War II rationing still in effect, she can’t stoke the fireplace as often as she’d like.
So Isabel searches the back of the closets for more blankets, and finds a greatcoat — a long, heavy woolen trench coat that becomes the title character of Helen Dunmore’s mysterious new novel.
With the coat as a blanket, she’s finally warm. But finding the greatcoat coincides with the arrival of a visitor — a strangely familiar man who first taps on the window in the night, then breezes in as if he owns the place the next afternoon, when Isabel’s husband is away.
The young wife is not afraid. In fact, the stranger provides a pleasant diversion.
Isabel has been bored and restless in her new home: She hasn’t made any friends yet; she has nothing to stimulate her intellect; and her husband, who has a rewarding, high-status job, is busy at all hours. And on top of that, she’s been haunted by an ever-present, ever-hostile live-in landlady.
So she welcomes the strange man, Alec, who is dressed as a bomber pilot even though the war ended more than seven years before. His visits become more frequent, and each time she sees him, Isabel remembers more and more of their shared history — a past life that her intellect tells her never happened, but her heart embraces.
“The Greatcoat” captures the sense of post-war England. Hastily created military airports, just as hastily abandoned, still dotted the southeast portion of the country, and blackouts and the sound of bombers were still vivid memories.
Is Alec a ghost? Perhaps, although he’s a solid physical presence, as well as a construct of Isabel’s imagination. Or has putting on the greatcoat taken Isabel into some kind of time warp, which allows her to become a silent observer of events that happened during the war?
Either way, it’s a good book to read on a cold, rainy afternoon. Just remember to bolt the door first.
“The Greatcoat,” by Helen Dunmore, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.