Lethal sex. That was the active ingredient in last year’s hit movie Basic Instinct. The controversial thriller, directed by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, exploited sex and violence to a degree unprecedented in mainstream movies. Now, two new films by European directors explore the dangers of sexual obsession—but with vastly different results. Both are about successful, married men who risk family and career to pursue fatal attractions. Both feature beautiful, enigmatic women with an appetite for rough sex—blouse-ripping, head-banging, roll-on-the-floor fornication. Body of Evidence, starring Madonna as the body in question, is a tawdry courtroom drama in which cynical titillation serves as a lame alibi for a ludicrous script. But Damage, starring Jeremy Irons, is an erotically charged yet tasteful tragedy that offers outstanding performances, immaculate direction and intelligent writing.
In Body Of Evidence, Madonna plays Rebecca, a seductive art gallery owner charged with murder in Portland, Ore. Police find nipple rings and handcuffs at the scene of the crime. The victim, a wealthy man with a heart condition has died after a strenuous bout of kinky, cocaine-enhanced sex. The district attorney (Joe Mantegna) sets out to prove that Rebecca
used her body as a deadly weapon, killing her lover in order to inherit his wealth. A whiny Anne Archer portrays the victim’s resentful secretary, who becomes the state’s key witness. And Rebecca’s lawyer, a family man named Frank (Willem Dafoe), tries to prove her innocence—while guiltily succumbing to her predatory charm.
There is humor in Body of Evidence, but so much of it seems unintentional that it is hard to recognize the real thing. And the film’s incoherence is surprising given that it was directed by German-born Uli Edel, who filmed the gritty, uncompromising Last Exit to Brooklyn.
For Madonna, meanwhile, the movie appears to be just another marketing move in her multimedia campaign of self-promotion, a companion piece to her dirty-picture book, Sex, and her new album, Erotica. In Body of Evidence, she displays her body with evident pride, but her breasts are rapidly losing their novelty value. And the actual scenes of coupling are silly, especially a stunt involving the laborious dribbling of candle wax onto Dafoe’s skin. In Body of Evidence, Madonna seems to be trying to create the kind of sensation achieved by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. But Madonna is no Sharon Stone. And her body of work still fails to offer much evidence that she can act.
Damage, however, is everything that Body of Evidences not. Exquisitely filmed by French director Louis Malle, it is a tightly contained drama about a devastating act of sexual transgression. London playwright David Hare adapted the story from the best-selling novel by Irish-born author Josephine Hart. And his script, in the hands of a superb cast, is a marvel of restraint. Its meaning fies between the fines, in the nuanced looks and gestures that suggest fathoms of unarticulated feeling—rumors of an unspeakable desire that seethes just below the surface of English civility.
Stephen (Irons) is a British member of Parliament who betrays both his wife and son by starting a secret affair with his son’s new girlfriend, Anna (French actress Juliette Binoche). It begins somewhat implausibly. Meeting at a cocktail party, Anna and Stephen stare at each other in smoldering silence for an unnaturally long time. Later, when he first shows up at her apartment, not a word passes between them—not until after they have made g love, violently, on the floor.
“ For Stephen, sex with Anna becomes an £ addictive form of self-annihilation. Although ^ Anna’s romance with his son, Martyn (Rupert Graves), becomes increasingly serious, she continues to encourage his father’s passion. But unlike most Hollywood movies about fatal attractions, Damage does not brand her as evil. Played with mesmerizing ambiguity by Binoche, Anna thrives on illicit sex as a release from romantic commitment. She had a brother who committed suicide “because he wanted me all for himself,” she says. “It’s made me terrified of any kind of possessiveness.” Anna’s sexual ferocity is a result of injury, not malice. “Damaged people are dangerous,” says Anna. “They know they can survive.”
Irons, meanwhile, does a brilliant job of portraying Stephen’s attempt to reconcile his fastidious need for control with his newly unrepressed passion. “We’ve got to find a structure for this,” he tells Anna, with almost comical understatement. And again, despite the monstrous nature of Stephen’s betrayal, the movie does not vilify him. His craving for Anna has a vampirish quality, but it is also a revolt against the accumulated hypocrisy of a fife made up of complacent loyalties to state and family. Still, Stephen’s trusting wife, played with explosive force by Miranda Richardson, is fully sympathetic in her own right.
Malle’s attention to subtle detail is what makes Damage so powerful. Filming his lovers in rich ochre and russet interiors, he creates an atmosphere of luxurious confinement reminiscent of Last Tango in Paris. The director also portrays sex with a dramatic realism that is never exploitative. He increases the nudity in stages that correspond to the story’s suspense. And, by the time Irons and Binoche finally make love fully naked, the circumstances are so horrific that the scene has the reverse effect of titillation. Damage is heavy drama, unrelieved by Hollywood fantasy. It leaves a fingering sense of disturbance, inflicting an emotional damage that seems strangely satisfying.
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