Home > Reviews > DAMAGE – Zbigniew Preisner

DAMAGE – Zbigniew Preisner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Damage was one of the most critically acclaimed dramas of 1992. Directed by the great French filmmaker Louis Malle, and adapted from a popular novel by Josephine Hart, it starred Jeremy Irons as Stephen Fleming, a doctor and a British member of Parliament, who falls passionately in love with Anna, his son’s fiancée. Despite the dangers of discovery, and their age difference, Stephen and Anna’s affair continues over many months, until eventually it threatens to tear both their lives and his career apart. The film co-starred Juliet Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, and the great Leslie Caron, and quickly became notorious for its uninhibited sex scenes, thematic allusions to taboo topics such as incest and suicide, and the deeply committed performances from the cast. Miranda Richardson was especially lauded, received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Stephen’s scorned wife Ingrid, and took home the BAFTA in the same category.

The score for Damage was by the great Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, and came during that brief period where he was being actively courted by Hollywood, and scored several high profile American films. He had won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Music in 1991 for his work on three films (La Double Vie de Véronique, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and Europa Europa), would win it again in 1992 for Damage, and would win his third in a row in 1993 for his work on three more films (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, The Secret Garden, and Olivier Olivier) – an achievement that remains unprecedented. It’s interesting to look back at that period now, when he was receiving so much acclaim and being offered such high profile films, and consider that it lasted just five years or so. By the end of the 1990s he was back scoring arthouse films in Europe, entirely disillusioned by Hollywood’s working methods and the perceived lack of respect offered to his compositional process.

Damage is one of the best scores Preisner wrote during that period; it’s an intimate, enchanting orchestral work that treads a fine line between urgent eroticism and icy coolness and detachment, and contains several delicious thematic ideas. Using the idea that the story is built around the sexual connection between two people, Preisner focuses mostly on solo instruments to carry the melodic weight, most notably Zdzisław Łapiński’s cello representing Stephen, and either Konrad Mastylo’s piano or a high, wavering violin representing Anna. These instruments combine and intertwine and overlap like the two lovers at the center of the story, wrapping around each other in all manner of sensual musical ways, but always maintaining just a touch of emotional distance.

My friend and colleague James Southall and I once interviewed Preisner, and he told us that he feels that the use of silence is just as important as the use of sound in music. This is something that is very apparent throughout Damage. In many cues, the music often slows almost to a whisper, holding its breath, as if quivering on the edge of a climax, before emerging once more into swells of melody and rhythm. The instrumental textures are presented apart in the “Stephen” and “Anna” cues, in order for their respective themes to be heard, but when they come together, in cues like “At the Beginning,” the harp-centric “Intimacy,” and especially the haunting “Dramatic Departure,” the effect is superb. This is music that feels like sex – the gentle caress of a hand across a piano keyboard, a fingertip pressed firmly on the cello’s board – and the fact that Preisner also sometimes throws a throbbing slow tango rhythm across the basses just adds to the suggestive feel of it all.

Other cues focus on other instruments to excellent effect. There’s a languid duet for clarinet and chimes in “Introduction,” which eventually melts into a folk-like theme carried by a guitar. Slightly tropical jazz percussion rhythms underpin the music in both the gorgeously sultry “The Last Time” cues, which go on to focus on a bed of lush, syncopated pianos and a sizzling solo trumpet motif that John Barry fans will appreciate.

“Café Royal” reprises the melody from “The Last Time” as a duet for a Mellotron organ and a marimba, backed with ringing brushed cymbals. Lightly plucked pizzicato textures give “Brussels-Paris” a flighty and vaguely comic air, although this is counterbalanced by the more edgy string textures in “Memories,” which at times feel almost threatening, as Anna recalls some of emotional and physical tragedies from her past.

“In the Country” has an air of pretty classical piano opulence which feels almost ironic in the way it conjures up an air of sophistication, but also somehow feels forced – like a false sheen of elegance masking something that is actually much less refined. “The Night” and “Late Thought” are both anguished and dissonant, beds of trembling overlapping string patterns, while parts of “Fatal Exit” veer into the aggressively tempestuous territory usually occupied by Preisner’s great countryman and contemporary, Wojciech Kilar. Jeremy Irons’s mellifluous voice accompanies the tortured cello writing of Stephen’s theme in the dark and brooding “Memories Are Made For This,” and then the two conclusive cues “Damage” and “End Title” reprise much of the score’s main melodic content with a more impassioned symphonic sweep that is very satisfying.

I think it’s fair to say that Zbigniew Preisner’s music is an acquired taste. Despite his brief dalliance in the Hollywood mainstream, he remained steadfastly opposed to overly-wrought emotional outbursts or sweeps of sentimentality, preferring instead to explore quieter and more intimate connections with smaller ensembles and hesitant, stripped down orchestrations. With hindsight this is perhaps the reason why Preisner never fully connected with the Hollywood aesthetic, especially in the 1990s, and why his brief emergence from the arthouse was so unexpected at the time.

With that in mind, anyone who does have a connection with that arthouse sound, or who connected with any of the other dramatic works he penned during the late 1980s and early 1990s, will find Damage to be one of the best scores he wrote during that period. His music cleverly makes the torrid relationship between Stephen and Anna all the more intense, despite the fact that it’s all accomplished with a series of jazz combo pieces and muted instrumental duets that sometimes reduce to a mere whisper, little more than a warm breath on the back of your neck.

Buy the Damage soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Introduction (1:46)
  • The Last Time I (3:02)
  • Stephen I (0:46)
  • Anna I (1:11)
  • At the Beginning (1:36)
  • Cafe Royal (1:47)
  • Anna II (1:37)
  • Intimacy (1:28)
  • Brussels-Paris (1:22)
  • Lutecia Hotel (1:18)
  • Memories (2:03)
  • In the Country (2:21)
  • The Night (2:32)
  • Dramatic Departure (3:20)
  • Late Thought (1:20)
  • Stephen II (0:53)
  • The Last Time II (3:02)
  • Fatal Exit (1:04)
  • Memories Are Made For This (2:05)
  • Damage (1:43)
  • End Title (1:43)

Running Time: 37 minutes 59 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5406 (1992)

Music composed by Zbigniew Preisner. Conducted by Wojciech Michniewski. Performed by The Symphonic Orchestra of Varsovia. Orchestrations by Zbigniew Preisner. Recorded and mixed by Leszek Kaminski. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Zbigniew Preisner.

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