Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.
From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.
Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.
In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.
Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.
Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.