Jeanne Moreau on Set of Viva Maria (Photo by Douglas Kirkland/Corbis via Getty Images)

In Desson Howe’s original review of Louis Malle’s Damage (1993), he writes about the “collegiate audience” that were at the same screening as he was. He pines for the days of students doing their “duty to stage sit ins, protest corporate immorality and line up in droves for racy foreign films,” when instead he experiences “squeaky clean titters and raucous befuddlement.” Howe references other recent classics like Top Gun and Basic Instinct (just as a critic might reference Fast & Furious or 50 Shades of Grey today) as a way to place Malle’s film in the context of contemporary cinema but in truth it didn’t quite fit even then.

Since the recent release of Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’s recent film, Deep Water, many have been asking the question:“What happened to the erotic thriller?” Since Damage, there have been very few meaningful films from this genre in the English language that are both critically and commercially successful, which is not to say there have been none: Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne’s last film, is often touted as an all time classic; Jane Campion’s maligned In The Cut is having a renaissance; and the 50 Shades films are what they are. Yet gone are the days of people lining up to see the latest critically acclaimed erotic thriller (usually starring Michael Douglas). There is something going on though, the brilliant Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast is delving into the “Erotic 80s” in its new series, looking at Hollywood’s quintessential erotic thrillers. Plus the release of Deep Water seemed to get people excited, until they saw the film. Perhaps the international success of recent films by people like Celine Sciamma and Julie Ducournau are getting people interested in these films again.
Eroticism as entertainment has existed almost as long as man has walked the Earth but in the context of these pages, Louis Malle seems a convenient place to start, not least because 2022 would be his 90th birthday. A contemporary of the French New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, he never really belonged to the movement that defined their generation. Both his subjects and his objective, unobtrusive, almost invisible brand of filmmaking was at odds with their intentions.
Malle was born and brought up in an affluent industrialist family, giving him ample opportunity to indulge his artistic ambitions from a young age. This privilege at a time of great social change in France and the creative revolution in his own industry meant that Malle did struggle personally with the idea that he had been born with any silver spoons. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Malle attended film school (though he didn’t complete his degree), where he was chosen to co-direct Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World (1955) (they won the best documentary feature Oscar and the Palme d’Or). His strong intellectual curiosity drove him from subject to subject, both in the narrative sense and the journalistic one; he was a cinematic explorer with a varied and dynamic group of films that set him apart.
Long before the New Wave was even a concept and those comparisons could begin, Malle attended a Roman Catholic boarding school near Fontainebleau during World War II. At 11, as would later be portrayed in Au revoir les enfants (1987), he witnessed a raid by the Gestapo, during which three students and a teacher, all Jewish, were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. His headmaster was also sent to a concentration camp for having them all at the school. This stayed with him throughout his life and, following two commercial and critical flops, Crackers and Alamo Bay, became the subject matter for Au revoir les enfants (1987).
After working with Cousteau, Malle assisted the legendary Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (1956), which gave him a head start on his contemporaries and was a major reason he was never tied down to any particular manifesto, style or rules. He was an enthusiastic supporter of French government subsidies that enabled him and his contemporaries. In the U.S., “the law of the market drives everything,” he once said. “On the other hand, the environment in France encouraged us”, they were allowed “to invent a bit.”
Malle’s second solo directing feature, The Lovers (1958), follows an affluent woman, played by Jeanne Moreau, who finds what she was missing when she sleeps with a total stranger. Needless to say it was somewhat provocative for the time, in particular its scene of sexual climax.
The film caused major controversy upon release in the United States. By showing the film, Nico Jacobellis, the manager of the Heights Art Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was charged with two counts of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film in violation of Ohio Revised Code. He was convicted and ordered by a judge to pay fines of $500 on the first count and $2,000 on the second. If the fines were not paid he was to be incarcerated. After being upheld by the Ohio Court of Appeals, the conviction was eventually reversed by the Supreme Court, which found that the film was not obscene and hence constitutionally protected. The most famous opinion came from Justice Potter Stewart, who stated that the Constitution protected all obscenity except “hard-core pornography.” He wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
So it is that Louis Malle cemented his place in the history of the Erotic Thriller. Nearly 35 years later, Malle would release his final thriller, Damage. Like The Lovers, Damage had its own issues when it came to explicit scenes. The original version, which was screened for the critics in the US, contained, according to Todd McCarthy in Variety, “nothing that hasn’t been seen in countless R-rated pix over the years; if the entire flap hadn’t happened, one wouldn’t have thought anything of it.”
The MPAA gave the cut an NC-17 rating, forcing Malle to recut the film for an R rating. In October 1992, Malle explained to Charlie Rose, “they used to call it X which means, you know, this is pornography. I don’t think that Damage has anything to do with pornography….They changed the name they called it NC-17, which technically means forbidden for under-17s but actually people look at it still as an X. So it doesn’t work for us and especially as I’m very proud of Damage and I hated them to sort of give the stigma. It was not right.”
As a result, they changed the order of one scene, according to the director, which was enough to receive the rating. This probably says more about American culture than anything else, as Malle puts it in the same interview, “what strikes me as a foreigner who lives here all the time is the taboo on nudity, where it seems like violence is completely acceptable.” Some things may never change.
Damage follows Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons) a Conservative MP at the end of the Thatcher years. He is the epitome of stiff upper lip Englishness, in total control of his family, life and everything around him. That is until he meets Juliette Binoche’s Anna, who triggers something in him. Roger Ebert wrote of their meeting, “They speak briefly, their eyes meet, and then each holds the other’s gaze for one interminable second after another, until so much time has passed that we, in the audience, realise we are holding our breath.” Malle excelled when it came to dealing with controversial and taboo topics. He was very aware of this and chose material accordingly. Shortly after the release of Damage he said: “My ambition is not strictly to entertain…I’m always interested in an aspect of the truth which goes against preconceived ideas, including mine.”
While Damage may share certain similarities with Malle’s earlier films, it remained the only feature film he made in England. This may surprise people as his style lent itself to an aesthetic so closely associated with British film. In this instance, his usual stylistic austerity is heightened and enhanced to varying degrees of success by the crisp screenplay by David Hare.
Though perhaps at times unlikely, there is something compelling in the way that Damage’s central pair embrace their affair. The recklessness with which Stephen conducts himself in a series of encounters leaves him in all kinds of compromising positions. From their first secret meeting, we know that this will end badly. Once more creating a rather compelling and surprising scenario wrapped up in a package more akin to a contemporary Merchant Ivory film. A world away from Mike Leigh’s Naked, Derek Jarman’s Blue or Sally Potter’s Orlando – all era defining British films released around the same time.
In Irons and Binoche the film starred two actors at the peak of their powers. Irons had recently won the Academy Award for his performance as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune and was going through a purple patch working with the most acclaimed directors of the time including David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh and Bernardo Bertolucci. Roger Ebert put it very well when he described Irons’s casting. “Jeremy Irons, gaunt and aesthetic, brings no fleshy pleasure to the role. Love makes him look like a condemned man, and he feels guilty about sleeping with his son’s fiancée, but he must, he cannot help himself, and so he does. The heart knows what it must have.”
Juliette Binoche had most notably already starred in Hail Mary for Jean-Luc Godard and in Phillip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being alongside Daniel Day Lewis, and she was just about to star in her career defining roles in Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Though both were brilliant actors, they had serious issues on the set which, considering the subject matter, must have made things very difficult. Binoche in particular has spoken about the problems they encountered; she felt Irons had been over zealous in their intimate scenes together. Later, however, she said they had settled any difficulties they had while filming. Speaking on the subject of failures at the BFI in 2008 she said, “it was very difficult to work with Jeremy Irons, and we talked about it. Now we’re able to talk about, so the failure became something that is, I’d say, friendship now. Also, there are so many emotions on a set, because you take risks and expose yourself so much, and feel things that you didn’t expect to feel. So these emotions, they’re a wonderful tool to know who you are, but they can also be mischievous and horrible if you’re not careful. If you know they’re your friends but you can also keep them at a distance, then it’s not a failure anymore.”
This sentiment brings me back to Desson Howe of the Washington Post and his final summation of the film: “What do we have here? A problematic movie, based on a problematic book, that’s not for everyone, and that might not even be for all the people it is meant for. Yet there’s something fascinating about it… Whatever it is, compared to the likes of Top Gun and Basic Instinct, Damage is far more compelling and far less false.”
So it is I must draw to a close with a hope that you might seek out this film if you haven’t already but an even greater hope that you might seek out Louis Malle more generally. Though he may not be lauded in the same way as many of his contemporaries, he remains one of the most interesting, challenging and compelling filmmakers of the 20th Century. He may never have been quite on time with his pictures, never quite of the zeitgeist but taken out of time, out of context, he really was one of the great French, European and International filmmakers of the last century.