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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

When ‘Damage’ Turns to ‘Obsession’: Examining Two Adaptations of the Same Erotic Thriller Novel

Sexual obsession is well-worn territory for Erotic Thrillers, a subgenre that often features men who think with their libido rather than their brain. When you spend your life thinking about screwing, it tends to screw with your life.

This is the central premise of Josephine Hart’s 1991 novel Damage, which was transformed in the 1992 film of the same name, and, most recently, was adapted into the four part Netflix series Obsession.

In both adaptations, a wealthy, powerful, middle-aged married man becomes sexually obsessed with his son’s new girlfriend. They begin an affair, and the sexual desire costs the man everything: his job, his marriage, and the life of his son, who dies tragically when he falls over a banister after witnessing his father fucking his fiancé.

What’s interesting about both Damage and Obsession is how both texts adopt the tropes of an Erotic Thriller, albeit by substituting criminal or murderous activity for melodrama. It’s a testament to the malleability of the genre that so many elements are nearly identical, right up to the Anna character’s femme fatale coding; without the murder or the crime, however, these texts tend not to be on the radar of thriller fans.

Let’s begin with an examination of  Louis Malle’s 1992 film, adapted by screenwriter David Hare. In Damage, Jeremy Irons plays Stephen Fleming, a UK doctor who is rising rapidly through the political ranks. He’s happily married to Ingrid (Miranda Richardson) and they have two children, teenager Sally (Gemma Clarke), and adult son Martyn (Rupert Graves), a political reporter.

The plot kicks in when Martyn’s new girlfriend, Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche), introduces herself to Stephen at a party. Their connection is instant and undeniably sexual; in no time at all they’re having passionate sex on the floor of her flat.

There’s something animalistic about the intercourse in the film. It’s unbridled, certainly, but there’s also an unscripted, almost acrobatic, component to the sexual positions in which Binoche and Iron find themselves.

Stephen’s obsession quickly becomes all encompassing: he abandons a work conference in Brussels to track Anna down and screw her in an alley when she’s on a romantic weekend with Martyn. He also lies to Ingrid and even gaslights young Sally after she sees him coming out of Anna’s room in the middle of the night.

Essentially Stephen is torpedoing his entire life for a sexual relationship with a woman half his age. The subject matter is hardly novel or new, except for the frankness with which the film depicts the affair.

In arguably Binoche’s best scene, Anna asks Stephen why he would give up his marriage and his relationship with his son to do mundane activities like eat breakfast with her, especially when she’s already his? It’s a fascinating glimpse into the character’s psychology: whereas Stephen has lost sight of everything he’s worked for, Anna is calm and rational. They’re both enjoying themselves, so sneaking around and maintaining their “legitimate” relationships is the best course forward. Unlike so many texts about adultery, the mistress doesn’t harbour any illusions about where the affair is going.

Obviously part of the appeal of the book and both adaptations is the salacious idea of a father having an affair with his son’s girlfriend. It’s seedy, torrid, and feels slightly incestuous (even though it’s not).

The taboo nature of the affair ultimately makes Martyn’s death that much more impactful and really elevates the tragedy of the film’s last act. When Ingrid questions why Stephen didn’t kill himself after sleeping with Anna, the film practically crackles with electricity (these scenes earned Richardson a well-deserved Supporting Actress Oscar nomination).

The ensuing fall-out, as Stephen effectively retreats from the public eye to live in obscurity, is simultaneously appropriate, sad and pathetic. Although Stephen is the film’s protagonist and his desire for Anna is understandable, there’s a clear condemnation of not just his actions, but also his hubris; he not only believed that he could have it all, but failed to consider the harm he could cause because he could only consider his own wants.

That the film ends with an iconic final image of Stephen sitting in front of a giant blown-up picture of him, his son, and their lover is sheer perfection. It’s a symbol of everything that he had and lost; an empty bit of nostalgia epitomizing the three lives he ruined.

Contrast this with Netflix’s 2023 effort from creators Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Benji Walters. The four-part series, which – when combined – averages a slightly longer run time than Malle’s film, bears all of the same plot mechanics and characters, albeit with a few contemporary twists.

In the new version, Stephen is now William (Hannibal‘s Richard Armitage), a powerful surgeon and not a politician. Intriguingly there’s a minor suggestion that although William is on the cutting-edge of medicine, his wealth and his fame are actually thanks to his marriage to Ingrid (Game of ThronesIndira Varma) and, by extension, her ultra-rich Indian father, Edward (Anil Goutum).

Just like in the film, Anna (Charlie Murphy) meets William before they’re formally introduced. In Obsession, however, her actions are coded to make it clearer that Anna has deliberately sought out William with plans to seduce him. Yes, he’s the one feeding her olives in plain sight, but even in their first intimate encounter, Anna is clearly the one in control. Both during sex, and afterwards when she establishes the ground rules that he must abide by, Anna is the alpha.

The series trepidatiously ventures into S&M territory not just with a constant renegotiation of the rules, but also sexually. After the first encounter, the adulterous couple branch out into light bondage rope-play, putting the series in conversation with the popular Fifty Shades of Gray series (albeit well after the latter’s cultural currency has expired).

The sex in Obsession is just as acrobatic and frenzied as the film, though the 2023 series seems more desperate to shock. Not only do William and Anna refuse to ever use a bed (it’s always the floor or against the wall), the series boasts one of the most notorious TV scenes of the year. When William follows Anna on her romantic Paris getaway with his son, Jay (Rish Shah), his jealousy and desire get the better of him. After luring Anna out to fornicate in the alley, he winds up renting her hotel room after she and Jay check out. Once inside, William proceeds to first desperately sniff a pillow for Anna’s scent, masturbate by humping it aggressively, and then cry.

It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Despite the longer run time and social progress in depictions of sex on screen, Obsession never overcomes its laughable execution. Armitage and Murphy are both incredibly attractive and they have solid chemistry, but the writing only delivers surface level explorations of what’s driving William’s obsession and Anna’s advances.

Unlike the film, which is exclusively from Stephen’s perspective, the limited series briefly attempts to explore Anna’s psychology. Alas this, too, fails. In the film, Anna is driven by a fear of intimacy thanks to the death of her brother, who was in love with her and died by suicide when he realized they could never be together. In the series, this is handled much more exploitatively, but far less convincingly: it is heavily implied that Anna’s older brother Aston was raping her before he ultimately killed himself, an act that her mother Elizabeth (Marion Bailey) both knew about and blamed Anna for.

This should be confronting, emotional stuff, but it doesn’t land. Throughout the series, Anna remains inaccessible and, just like the suggestion that the character could be a femme fatale, the series is content to stop its investigation of this complex, sexual woman in favour of some pretty ridiculous sex and rote drama.

Again: shock for shock’s sake.

Damage is absolutely worth seeking out, as a classic example of adult-oriented cinema, for Malle’s direction, and for Richardson’s supporting performance. Obsession, despite being slicker and more contemporary, confuses sex for intrigue and winds up landing in farce.

It may be smuttier, but that only gets you so far. In this case: opt for prestige.

Sex Crimes is a column that explores the legacy of erotic thrillers, from issues of marital infidelity to inappropriate underage affairs to sexualized crimes. In this subgenre, sex and violence are inexplicably intertwined as the dangers of intercourse take on a whole new meaning. 

The post When ‘Damage’ Turns to ‘Obsession’: Examining Two Adaptations of the Same Erotic Thriller Novel appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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