In recent years, the buzzwords "bold" and "controversial" have come
less to describe something truly daring than to serve as marketing labels
for unimaginative sleaze (Showgirls or Striptease, anyone?). On the other
hand, David Cronenberg's Crash, which is finally opening stateside after
causing an uproar across the globe (Great Britain just recently lifted a ban
on the film), is a film that truly earns the "bold" description--it's a
brave, gutsy bit of filmmaking that is never less than fascinating.
This adaptation of J.G. Ballard's controversial novel about sex and
car crashes focuses on just that--sex and car crashes. James and Catherine
Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) are marrieds who can only seem
to become aroused for each other through consensual extramarital dalliances.
After James has a head-on car collision with one Dr. Helen Remington (Holly
Hunter), killing her husband, he finds a new, exciting fetish. James and
eventually Catherine are drawn into an underground cult of car-crash
fetishists led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a heavily scarred performance
artist who gets off on recreating famous celebrity car wrecks.
Not a lot of plot (there's just about as much dialogue as well), but
there is plenty of explicit sex and carnage, and I can see why so many
people absolutely abhor the film. The film's unflinching scenes of sex
involving scarred flesh, wounds, scabs, blood, and pain are hard to take and
often shocking--perhaps beyond most people's tolerance levels. At the
showing I attended, about 1/4 of the audience was no longer there by the
time the closing credits began to crawl. In fact, one could hear the
auditorium doors swing open during or after each shock scene (read: sex
scene), which was just about every five minutes.
While I was often shocked, I was more fascinated then repelled. The
thin plot and wall-to-wall sex may sound like the characteristics of a porno
movie, but the execution is not pornographic at all. The sex scenes are raw
and unglossy, matter-of-fact and totally devoid of romanticism and eroticism
or any feeling at all. To say that these people "have sex" may be too
pretty a term; they fuck, plain and simple. And if using that term just
makes it sound like the film has no point, there is one. James and
Catherine are not just unmoved by each other, but by life in general; their
inability to feel anything makes them, in particular James, seek out a way
to feel. The film vividly shows how James attempts to feel something
through sexual encounters that grow progressively more dangerous, leading up
to the final dialogue exchange, which, the way I read it, implies the
ultimate point of the film--a haunting conclusion and realization that is
even more unsettling in how it makes logical sense.
The stark, cold elegance in how it all comes together is a tribute
to Cronenberg, whose talent to get under filmgoers' skin is further proven
by the wildly polarized, love-it-or-hate-it reaction to the film. Despite
the preposterousness of the central idea (I doubt anyone has a car crash
fetish), there are no laughable moments, except perhaps one where the group
is driven to heights of ecstasy while watching crash test dummy footage.
Cronenberg elicits appopriately stoic and morose turns by Spader, Unger, and
Hunter, but the standouts of the cast are the creepy Koteas and Rosanna
Arquette, who plays a crippled crash victim whose leg-braces-and-leather
get-up suggests a twisted (literally) dominatrix. Cronenberg does fall
somewhat short in setting up the characters; we never get a concrete sense
of how or why Helen, James, or Catherine became so disaffected by the world.
A better understanding of the people may have made the film resonate even
But, as it stands, Crash resonates pretty strongly. With this,
what you see is not what you get. All of the sex makes it look like porn,
but no porn film has such strong thematic subtext. Then again, not that
many films, period, provide so much fascinating food for thought.