As with some of the most challenging and provocative films that prominently feature sex, the sexual interactions in Louis Malle's Damage are hardly sexual. From the moment Jeremy Irons' Stephen Fleming meets the enigmatically beautiful Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche), it's clear that this is more than mutual attraction - it is mutual obsession. There's an impetuous and reckless nature to lust, and although Stephen learns (immediately) that Anna is his son Martin's girlfriend, that information seems irrelevant and, at the same time, slightly more arousing.
Fairly early on in their relationship, Anna describes herself as "damaged" to Stephen while telling him the tragic story of her brother, who killed himself when he could not possess Anna entirely. She says this not to plea for attention or beckon pity, but as a warning to Stephen that damage begets damage. All Stephen hears is her sadness, all he sees are her tears and the opportunity to fill a broken void. It isn't Anna's intention to hurt Stephen; she knows it is inevitable, and yet this knowledge does nothing to deter her - or him - from engaging in this affair which has so much potential for massive, emotional collateral damage.
It's nearly impossible to explain why we lust after the people we do, but we can try. At home, Stephen is bored by the pleasant banality of married life. He comes home to his wife, who engages him in non-conversations about who called and what's for dinner. What most people enjoy as the comforts of long-term companionship simply makes Stephen feel idle, restless and complacent. Irons' gaunt physicality lends itself well to this role, as Stephen often looks as if he's being drained both emotionally and physically.
Binoche plays Anna with a specific yet indefinable attractive quality - there is nothing showy about it; instead it is solemn and seductively plain. Anna warns but does nothing to impede, she enables and takes openly, like a cup waiting to be filled. When Stephen attempts to end their affair over the phone, there is the faintest hint of a smile creeping around the corners of Anna's mouth - a smile that takes pleasure in emotional consumption and destruction.
The obsessive attraction between Anna and Stephen scratches an itch neither of them (possibly) knew existed, leaving an open wound that is entirely Id. When Stephen and Anna have sex, it cannot be described as passionate or animalistic, nor is it overtly sexual. It's as if they're two blind, mentally challenged children flailing and slapping and clumsily grasping at each other; as if they are two blind, mentally challenged children having sex for the first time in their respective lives, crudely mimicking the sex they've seen elsewhere - and in a sense, this is exactly what Anna and Stephen are. It's awkward in a way that's almost arousing, but it's unlike any sex we've seen on film before. (It puts the Showgirls pool scene to shame.) The bizarre symbolic quality of Anna and Stephen placing their hands over each other's eyes while facing each other during intercourse feels instinctual - they cover each other's eyes so as to feel as much as possible, to not be distracted by the tangible world and its doubts and sadness and guilt.
The first time Stephen goes to Anna for sex, she looks at her bed before dismissively sliding down the end of it, arms held open as if crucified, and there they remain as she gives herself to Stephen - her body is strangely both limp and stiff at the same time, like a human-sized doll that cannot help itself.
There is also a playful element to the sex between Anna and Stephen, as the former laughs quite often, even after Stephen repeatedly (but carefully) slams her head into the floor with each determined thrust. It's here that it first becomes apparent that there is something darker beneath Anna's surface, slipping quietly beneath and between the sadness over her brother's suicide. She is impulsive and self-destructive, and though she delivers a warning to Stephen in the form of a quietly tearful explanation of her damaged nature, their mutual obsession drives them to hit the self-destruct button together.
There is emotional destruction and physical destruction, and throughout Damage there persists a nebulous feeling that the former will conspire to foster the latter, particularly as Anna and Stephen become increasingly reckless. For instance, they have sex in Stephen's father-in-law's home, while Stephen's wife, their kids and Martin all sleep soundly in nearby rooms. It's notable that Anna and Stephen never have sex on a bed, not until their final act, as their affair transforms from an elusive obsession into something infinitely more palpable and emotional. Anna brings flowers to the secret flat where she wishes to carry on the relationship, instilling the cradle of their affair with pure romance. Their final act of sex is pure love-making - no longer are their limbs grasping at each other violently. It's sensual and slow.
But ultimately damage begets damage, and that final act irreparably changes their lives. Stephen cannot return to his life of pleasant banality, destined to a life of solitary sorrow, while Anna moves on to the comforts of another. Damage spreads like a sexually transmitted disease, and once Anna has shared it, she is free.