Canada/UK | 1996 | Directed by David Cronenberg
Logline: The victim of a car crash, and his wife, discover a sub-culture of damaged people who are sexually obsessed with automobile crashes and the libidinous energy surrounding them.
J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about a form of symphorophilia – sexual arousal from accidents or catastrophe – was long considered one of the great unfilmmable books. Then Cronenberg came along and, just as he had successfully tackled William Burroughs' seemingly unfilmmable novel The Naked Lunch, grabbed the car by its horns and wrestled it into a compelling tale of dysfunctional desperation and sexual misadventure.
The novel could be read as a moody case study of sexual perversion and obsession, oozing dangerous fetishistic allure and fueling the most nihilistic of desires. Cronenberg strips the core elements from the book and customises his own vehicle, and it’s aged like a vintage performance automobile, all sleek body and raw engine power, with very little having dated in twenty years.
Screen producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), have an open relationship, each indulging their sexual whims, but striving for more within their own. They relate their extramarital encounters and find small joy in the discussion. After Ballard is involved in a serious car-crash and in recovery he becomes involved with the car’s crash survivor, now widow, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). He also meets Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who expresses great interest in Ballard’s injuries, “The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”
Ballard and Remington begin an affair. Vaughn befriends Ballard and introduces him and Catherine to his extracurricular project: recreating celebrity car-crashes for a small audience, such as the one that killed James Dean. Next he plans on staging Jane Mansfield's infamous accident (in the novel Vaughn’s ultimate fantasy is to have a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor), but in the meantime Vaughn has his eye on Catherine, whilst Ballard meets one of Vaughn’s entourage, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arguette), whose long legs are clad in fishnets and medical steel braces, providing Ballard with an erotic itch he yearns to scratch.
The reshaping of the human body by modern technology is a concept that has been part of Cronenberg’s blueprint since the beginning of his career. Crash takes his penchant for body horror and fuses it with a kind of urban apocalyptic urgency. Ballard says to his wife, both at the start and end, “Maybe the next one,” implying that the inevitable purge from his – and the others – sexual aberration will be a release from this mortal coil.
The performances across the entire cast are superb, with many of the actors in roles and scenarios unlike anything else in their career, and pulling it off with somber aplomb, while Howard Shore’s grinding electric guitar-vibed score is perfectly in tune with the movie’s metal edge. We haven't seen this kind of sleekness and aloofness in a Cronenberg movie since Stereo and Crimes of the Future.
It’s curious to note the omni-sexual presence that permeates the novel isn’t entirely diluted for the movie, in order to give it more mainstream appeal. A scene where Vaughn picks up and screws a hooker in the backseat of his Lincoln Convertible whilst Ballard drives with a whiplash smile, the woman is notably androgynous. In another scene Remington becomes extremely turned on whilst watching test-crash dummies on the television, and she fondles both Ballard and Gabrielle’s crotches, suggesting a desired threesome.
The production design’s clean lines and the chromeo palette illuminate Crash’s vehicular chill, with emotionally desolate characters stranded on the islands of the highways, yet, peculiarly, the movie still manages to be erotic, especially in the uncut version of the film. Three urgent mechanical sex scenes punctuating the movie’s opening sequence, but it’s the two extravagant crashes, and the semi-deliberate final cut-off that just might repair the Ballard marriage – “Maybe the next time, darling, maybe the next time” – that linger longest and hardest, searing a sensual afterburn on the retina, and reminding us this is one of the most disturbing and powerful in Cronenberg’s oeuvre.