Why Passion Needs Reason
There's just something about Jeremy Irons, isn't there? I mean, I'm not even sure anymore how many movies I've seen where he is sexually obsessed with someone or something that he shouldn't be. Obviously, I don't know if this is true of the actor, for all he's been married to the same woman for just over thirty-four years. (And I mean that I am writing this the day after his anniversary.) But I think it more likely that it's a cross between his lean, ascetic look and the quality with which he portrays intensity. There's also a richness in his voice; he isn't quite on my phone book list, but it would definitely be nice to hear him directing a few of those impassioned words my way, you know? Just for the sound of it. Of course, we do know that he's willing to take this kind of role, which goes a long way toward why directors are willing to cast him in them. After all, you know that he'll do well at it, and with movies like this, who you cast is important.
Here, he is Dr. Stephen Fleming, a cabinet minister. He appears to have been happily married to Ingrid (Miranda Richardson) for some time. They have a teenage daughter, Sally (Gemma Clarke), and a journalist son, Martyn (Rupert Graves). One day, at a diplomatic function, Stephen meets Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). There is an instant flare of sexual attraction, which is not hampered by the fact that she is in a relationship with Martyn. Anna calls him at work, and he agrees to meet her. They begin a heated, torrid affair, which continues even after Anna accepts Martyn's proposal. The only two people to see what is happening are two people from Anna's past. There is her first and recurring lover, Peter Wetzler (Peter Stomare), and there is her mother, Elizabeth Prideaux (Leslie Caron). Elizabeth tries to warn Stephen about Anna, but he cannot hear her. He cannot hear anything against Anna or against his own desires, no matter how wrong he knows them to be.
You can't help who you find attractive. The heart wants what the heart wants--as do other parts. What you can and should help, and what Jeremy Irons characters never seem to, is doing something about it. Stephen isn't stupid. He knows exactly how much this will hurt Ingrid and Martyn if they should ever find out. Or he would, if he ever thought about it. But he never does seem to think. Anna is probably well aware of what she is doing and how it will make everyone feel if it ever comes out. She isn't stupid or blind. What she is is deeply scarred. It makes her unafraid and unconcerned. Probably everyone in the movie except Stephen and Martyn sense that there is something not right about her; they are blinded to her flaws. Neither one can avoid the fate that they let themselves in for by loving Anna and insisting on having her.
I'm surprised this movie got an R. My understanding is that, in order to get it, they had to trim it some--a full minute. They don't show a lot in it. There's hardly any nudity at all. Most of the time, Stephen and Anna are so passionate that they don't take the time to get undressed. And when they are naked, it's mostly filmed so that you don't see anything too specific. However, it is quite clear that Anna is enjoying herself. (Juliette Binoche apparently didn't enjoy herself quite so much and walked off the set on at least one occasion.) And the MPAA has a thing about female sexuality. And while the movie is at least broadly about Stephen's desire, it is Anna's feelings which drive the movie, for all we don't find out about that right away. She, too, had the option of saying no to both Stephen and Martyn, but she didn't. Arguably, the movie is a story of mutual masochism.
As is usual in this sort of movie, the women are ciphers. Sally sees what is going on between her father and Anna, but she doesn't say anything--why not? At the climax, Ingrid is heartbroken, betrayed, but we don't know how she handles things. The movie leaves her. We know at least part of why Anna is the way she is, but there's got to be more to it than just her brother's suicide. Elizabeth knows about her daughter's scars, and she tries to prevent the things she knows must come next, but other than her own four marriages, we know next to nothing about her, either. Does Stephen's secretary, Miss Snow (Susan Engel), know or suspect what's going on? We know that Stephen is essentially driven mad with his obsession, but because he does not care what anyone else is thinking or feeling, the movie doesn't bother telling us.