France Great Britain (111 mi) 1992 d: Louis Malle
Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.
—Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche)
—Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche)
This is another international collaboration for director Louis Malle, this time a French-British film production mostly shooting the film in London, with one day shoots in both Brussels and Paris, using a source novel by Irish-born, British novelist Josephine Hart, adapted by screenwriter David Hare, who went on to pen THE HOURS (2002), where Nicole Kidman won the Best Actress Academy Award, and THE READER (2008), where Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award. If exceptional female performances are the common denominator, this film is no exception, featuring two extraordinary performances. The male lead, however, is played by classically trained, British Shakespearean actor Jeremy Irons as Stephen, whose icy cold sense of upper class routine and emotionally stern formality is at the heart of the film, as he’s a near impenetrable force. An extremely successful physician, he’s become a member of Parliament whose future is on the rise. His all-supporting and long-suffering wife is Miranda Richardson as Ingrid, who’s especially good in a rather ordinary role, initially seen as more of a mother and team player than an individual in her own right, but her tumultuous scenes near the film’s end literally steal the picture and won her a Best Actress nomination. However, it’s Juliette Binoche as Anna Barton that carries the film throughout, as she’s what adds fire and unpredictability to the otherwise darker solemnity of the film, as she’s not part of the British upper crest, but an outsider with a mysterious past. The other extraordinary element is the music by Zbigniew Preisner, Kieslowski’s longtime composer, adding psychological introspection, where his music only adds depths of complexity, continually creating a haunting and lonely sense of isolation and tension. From the opening sequence when the leads meet, they rarely use words, but the look says it all, as the two can’t take their eyes off each other even though she’s the girlfriend of his son Martyn, Rupert Graves, just making a name for himself as the new editor of a political paper.
Despite the obvious conflict, Stephen rushes full speed ahead into the arms of the forbidden fruit, where Anna fully embraces the idea, where their physicality is off the charts, where she nonetheless continues her “normal” relationship with Martyn as if nothing has happened. This torrid affair is the focus of the film, where her submissiveness to his every need ignites a flame, where she literally melts in his arms, compliant as butter, and he enjoys the newly discovered excitement that has been missing from his life, which otherwise adheres to an aggressively strict routine. His official world of order and control leaves little time or space left for passion or frivolity, a missing ingredient in his own family life, but what he brings to this duplicitous affair is obviously what Anna needs, as she’s happy with Martyn, perhaps even in love with him, but it’s his father that she seems to need. When Stephen suggests they run off together, she stops him dead in his tracks, telling him he’d lose everything that he has, and all for what? “Something you already have.” Nonetheless, their obsessive drive to meet anonymously, not to talk, but strictly for sexual bliss is reminiscent of LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), especially the self-destructive element, as Stephen is literally pushing himself over the brink. As an aside, Binoche walked off the set at some point during the shooting when actor Jeremy Irons was getting a bit too *aroused* during one of their lurid sex scenes. Incredulously, Martyn announces his engagement to Anna, where Ingrid is a bit suspicious because she knows so little about Anna, who may as well be a stranger, someone she’s not comfortable with, as she doesn’t fit in. Fanning the flames of uncertainty, Anna’s childhood is equally as puzzling, as her brother committed suicide at age 16, a devastating loss and someone she continues to feel intimately connected with, perhaps replacing the emotional void with inappropriate sex with a father figure. In another surprise, Anna’s mother shows up for the engagement party, none other than Leslie Caron as the internationally unsettled, four-times-married mother, Elizabeth, whose mere presence seems to make Anna revert to an unhappy child who never got along with her mother. But Elizabeth’s personal revelations come as something of a surprise, as she openly admits Martyn looks exactly like her brother.
With this, the emotional connection is veering into disturbing territory, where as Elizabeth is leaving, she tells Stephen in confidence that he should not stand in the way or come between this couple in marriage, basically telling him to step aside. Stephen is floored that she noticed, a bit embarrassed and ashamed, thinking he was hiding everything so expertly. There’s an eerie scene when the family and prospective in-laws are in bed in this enormous mansion, but when everyone’s supposedly asleep, Anna waits in the hallway for Stephen, where they move quietly to another room. Afterwards, however, as they return to their respective bedrooms, Stephen’s precocious young daughter Sally (Gemma Clarke) sees them come out of the room together as she’s getting a drink for herself, a bit startled at what she sees. This scene in the darkness has an element of fear and horror, where the dubious nature of what they’re doing is only amplified, elevating their need to lie and create a cover, a doubly troubling situation that’s only getting worse. This can only go on for so long, as nothing this brazenly morally contemptible can be rewarded in the end, so it continuously feels like an accident waiting to happen. The danger is expressed more through dark and shadowy atmospheric tones, as Anna is always dressed in black, and always answers to Stephen’s call, where to her it makes sense to marry Martyn in order to have Stephen. The melodramatic hysteria of shameless sin reaches epic proportions, where the tension is ratcheted up for the ultimate discovery, as something’s got to give, resorting to Hitchcockian means to resolve the conflict, where instantly, in a split second, everything changes, most all of it for the worse. Exposure is humiliation and disgrace, where Ingrid’s idea of moral accountability is right out of the Roman era where dishonored soldiers would fall upon their swords in disgrace. The turbulent finale is a whirlwind of twisting fates, most all of which feel like the agony of defeat. The agony and the ecstasy story of sexual obsession comes full circle, but there’s an interesting coda at the end, as if in tribute to the final freeze frame shot in François Truffaut’s remarkable introductory contribution to the French New Wave, but it has a doomed noirish voiceover tone, “It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world. I traveled... until I arrived at a life of my own. What really makes us is beyond grasping. It's way beyond knowing. We give in to love... because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters, not at the end.”