Inside ''Damage'' -- Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche take us behind the scenes of their new film about sexual obsession

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.”

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