David Cronenberg: Crash (1996)

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Crash is David Cronenberg’s boldest, strangest, and most transgressive film. It takes all of Cronenberg’s thematic preoccupations with the sexual and technological and coalesces them into a shocking work of sexual perversity. Although the film is an adaptation of a novel by J.G. Ballard, it seems ripped straight from the subsconscious of Cronenberg himself, reflecting on themes found in his early works like Crimes of the Future and Shivers, but now explored with the same cinematic mastery demonstrated in Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly. It’s an explosive work that pushes aside every boundary of taste in an attempt to convey its themes about the animal urges that drive our species. But it’s also profoundly successful, interrogating sex in ways that cinema rarely manages, and in the process, capturing the profound atomization of sexual relations in our modern world.

Crash follows James Ballard (James Spader), a film producer who together with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), live out their sexual fantasies with strangers in an attempt to find satisfaction and some measure of connection in the world. After Ballard survives a near-fatal car crash, he becomes involved with another survivor of the crash, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), whose husband died in the accident. Helen introduces Ballard to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the leader of a subculture of car crash fetishists who recreate famous car crashes and engage in sex on the road, and Ballard soon finds himself caught up in this world of dangerous sexual adventurism. He brings his wife into the subculture, which makes her prey for Vaughan and his violent urges. Overwhelmed by his predatory appetite, Vaughan begins stalking Ballard and Catherine on the open road, and ends up dying in a resulting accident. However, in the film’s final moments, Ballard claims Vaughan’s car, taking on his mantle and keeping his spirit of mecho-sexual experimentation alive.

When Ballard’s novel was released in 1973, it instantly proved to be a controversial work. The novel is not only explicit, but it’s also fast-paced and relentlessly provocative; it never gives you a moment to get your bearings before thrusting you into another uncomfortable scenario that upsets your notions of decency and proper sexual relations. Cronenberg takes a cue from the novel and is relentless with the film’s content and pacing. He starts the film with no less than three back-to-back sex scenes, as if warning the viewer to get used to the subject matter quickly or get out while they still can. Crash is confrontational even by Cronenberg’s standards; his previous films Shivers and Videodrome caused plenty of controversy upon their initial release, but none of it could compare to Crash, which managed a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 in the midst of deafening controversy over its subject matter.

As is usual with criticisms of Cronenberg, those disgusted with the film’s content were half-right: Crash is relentlessly explicit and upsets every notion of good taste. Cronenberg doesn’t go halfway when it comes to exploring the car crash fetishism that’s central to the plot. From the opening images of Catherine rubbing her bare breast on a plane fuselage to the immediate aftermath of Ballard crashing into the Remingtons, where Helen bares her breast and stares at Ballard in the wreckage with a mixture of hatred and sexual satisfaction, Cronenberg is provoking the viewer with the juxtapositions of sex and machinery. But, Cronenberg, ever the clinician, is not making pornography here, nor is he half as objectifying as most films coming out of Hollywood. His camerawork doesn’t pay much attention to the sexual features of the characters—he shows a lot of bare breasts, but the camera doesn’t linger on them the way it does in most Hollywood sex scenes—and although the camera never shies away from the explicitness of the sexual relations being depicted, he never attempts to make the film a seductive portrait.

That being said, Cronenberg does have fun with the film’s sexual content. He practically begs prurient viewers to turn off the film with the depths of depravity he displays, which culminates with a sex scene late in the film where Ballard has intercourse with the vaginal-like leg-wound of Rosanna Arquette’s fellow car crash victim/fetishist, Gabrielle. These scenes of intense sexual transgression are key to getting across just how desperate and detached the film’s characters are; normal sexual relations will not do, not even standard notions of what constitutes kink or perversion.

As well, even as Cronenberg deemphasizes the erotic in the sex scenes, he imbues erotic energy into seemingly-innocuous actions, confounding the viewer’s delineation between the two. For instance, Vaughan, who Elias Koteas plays as perpetually overwhelmed with sexual ecstasy, fills every action with sexual purpose. When he strokes the sports car that’s a recreation of the vehicle James Dean died in, he may as well be stroking a woman’s thigh for all the sensuality of his touch. In other moments, such as the leg-wound scene or the more casual moment where Catherine gives Ballard a handjob in the hospital while reading the details of his crash report, Cronenberg deliberately fills scenes that shouldn’t be sexual, such as the reading of a crash report, with sexual actions, or gives things, such a leg wound, sexual dimensions that they shouldn’t have. In Crash, Cronenberg is exploring the perverse and frustrating any attempt to distill the sexual out of the ordinary; as the sex act itself loses its eroticism, everything becomes erotic.

That’s why I refuse to say the film is not erotic. It’s certainly not pornographic, but to say that Crash doesn’t have eroticism to it ignores the sensuality that underscores so many of the film’s performances and preoccupations. Furthermore, it misses a key point that Cronenberg is trying to convey about how the modern world, and modern technology in particular, has upset the balance of human relations, which is most perfectly exemplified by how people relate sexually. He says that,

In Crash, very often the sex scenes are absolutely the plot and the character development. You can’t take them out. These are no twentieth-century sexual relationships or love relationships. These are something else. We’re saying that a normal, upper-middle-class couple might have this as their norm in the not-too-distant future.

Cronenberg is examining atomization and sexual disconnect in modern culture by depicting it taken to its most radical extreme. This exploration of social atomization is not unique to Cronenberg’s adaptation. Ballard implicitly explores the emotional distance inherent to the experience of modern society in the novel as well as in his other works like High-Rise; other popular European writers like Michel Houellebecq have similarly explored the fragmentation of community and social relations through sexually-charged scenarios—one of Houellebecq’s key novels is even called Atomised. From the opening scenes in Crash, it’s obvious that Ballard and Catherine do not emotionally connect to other people. They search for satisfaction and meaning through random sexual encounters, and even those encounters prove unsatisfactory; when Ballard asks Catherine if the sexual encounter that opens the film made her orgasm, she says that it didn’t, but that “Maybe the next one. Maybe the next one,” reciting a mantra for this sort of sexual exploration. Even as Ballard and Catherine become more engaged in car crash fetishism, their urges are left unsatisfied. After a now-routine sexual encounter with Helen Remington in an airport garage, Helen asks Ballard, “Have you come?”, to which he passively responds, “I’m fine,” before disengaging from the sexual act. Even the transgression of this perverse sexual encounter has lost its meaning.

Ballard and Catherine experience glimpses of satisfaction when Vaughan becomes involved in their sexual lives. After Ballard spends the night on the road with Vaughan, picking up hookers and having sex in his massive Lincoln (which is purposely the same model of car that Kennedy was assassinated in, as Vaughan considers the Kennedy assassination a kind of car crash), he has anal sex with Catherine. As he thrusts, she starts to ask him questions about Vaughan, whether he has had sex with him and how his penis looks. As the questions grow more graphic, Ballard grows more aroused and he thrusts harder and the sexual encounter grows more satisfying. Ballard is living out some homosexual fantasies here, which he will later live out in reality when he subsequently has sex with Vaughan, but he’s also reaching for a new sexual equilibrium that is satisfying, and yet, which inevitably proves unsustainable or out of reach.

It’s in this quest for connection and new purpose that Crash acquires its uniquely Cronenbergesque preoccupations. The focus on car culture calls back to Cronenberg’s drag racing B-movie, Fast Company. For instance, the scene at the racetrack where Vaughan recreates the James Dean car crash with his stuntman friend, Seagrave (Peter MacNeil), references the drag racing tracks in Fast Company. But this is a superficial connection. Crash is more similar to Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly in their explorations of sexual transgression, and especially Scanners and Videodrome in their look at human evolution. Crash is particularly similar to Videodrome, as it seems to prophesy sexual encounters in the age of the Internet in ways that couldn’t have been predicted at the time of its release; just as Videodrome is about television, Crash is about cars, but both are really about the construction of a New Flesh, one that is far more real in a time when human beings do most of their interactions, including their sexual interactions, through the technological mediations of the Internet.

Cronenberg knows that Crash is about the future. Despite taking place in Toronto in 1996, it has more than a touch of science-fiction to it and is explicitly concerned with prophecy and evolution through the character of Vaughan. In one scene, Vaughan explains how “Prophecy is ragged and dirty.” Ballard asks him whether he’s referring to “personal prophecy or global prophecy,” to which Vaughan replies, “There’s no difference.” Thus, Cronenberg knows that these specific preoccupations with car crashes and fetishism are not universal, but the pathology that drives them is universal to all modern life. Vaughan even says that, “It’s something we are all intimately involved in: the reshaping of the human body by modern technology.”

There’s no literal biological transformation in Crash like there is in Shivers, Videodrome, or The Fly, but there is a psychological transformation, and in Cronenberg’s estimations, the psychological and biological are intimately linked. For Vaughan, the sexual relationship with cars allows him to evolve and transcend his bodily limitations; the car becomes an extension of his body, and, thus, his sexual organ. Thus, the destruction of a car crash allows him to satisfy his sexual urges and create new sexual energy, which motivates him in the world; for Vaughan, it’s a “Benevolution psychopathy that beckons towards us. The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.” But it’s also atomized and solipsistic. It allows Vaughan to grow and actualize, but it does not take into account the destruction that it wreaks on others. So in a way, it makes Vaughan less human as it removes any notions of morality from his psychology. It fills him with an animal, predatory nature, and works as a devolution at the same time as it evolves him into a new form of human, much like Seth Brundle’s transformation in The Fly.

Cronenberg explores this dichotomy through two key scenarios later in the film. The creative aspect of car crashes is best exemplified during a scene where Vaughan, Ballard, and Catherine come across a major car crash on the highway. They get out of the car and move throughout the scene, examining the wreckage as Vaughan takes photographs. Eventually, we learn that the accident was caused by Seagrave, who dressed up as Jayne Mansfield and recreated her fatal car crash without Vaughan’s involvement; there’s even a small dog in the backseat of the car, recreating a key element of Mansfield’s death. Vaughan is overcome with jealousy, but he’s also aroused. The steam that fills the air becomes a visual metaphor for ejaculate, manifesting Vaughan’s own sexual release. (Cronenberg is literalizing the connection between sex (“eros”) and death (“thanatos”) that defines so much of Western philosophical and literary thought.) Vaughan transcends the normal reaction to death and destruction and is able to see Seagrave’s death as a “work of art,” but he has also activated his own animal impulses in the process, and he must satisfy these impulses in the coming scenes.

He does so by stalking Catherine and eventually Ballard on the freeway in his Lincoln, racing after them and ramming them like a bull in heat. This is a similar reaction to what happens after Vaughan and Ballard have sex. During the sex act, Ballard is the top and Vaughan is the bottom, placed in a position of vulnerability towards Ballard; in that scenario Ballard has the dominance. But after the sex act, Vaughan gets revenge on Ballard, ramming his car into Ballard’s in an act of re-asserting dominance. His car has transcended his sex organ as the main vehicle for him to prove his alpha status. Cronenberg is showing how even as Vaughan’s connection to cars has allowed him to evolve his psychology, it is also a devolution into an animal state, where nothing but dominance and power status matter.

Even after Vaughan dies in a car accident, this exploration of animal dominance continues as Ballard claims Vaughan’s beat up Lincoln convertible and begins to stalk Catherine on the freeway just as Vaughan did before. He has transcended to the position of the alpha and a new understanding of sexual being, but he’s also become nothing but a predatory animal. For Cronenberg, man becomes machine in Crash, but man also becomes animal, for a machine is less than a man. Thus, this form of evolution is not true transcendence; it does not solve the problem of social atomization, nor even grant true sexual release.

It’s perfectly fitting that at the film’s end, after Ballard has run Catherine off the road while driving Vaughan’s car, he rushes to the crash and asks her if she’s hurt. She says she’s alright, and as Ballard begins to have sex with her, he says, “Maybe the next one, darling. Maybe the next one.” We now realize that he’s not referring to sexual satisfaction, as Catherine is evidently in erotic ecstasy in this moment, but to death. The true release these people are looking for is not sex, but death, an end to the alienation and punishing disconnect from life. Thus, the car crash can give them that release, it can let them transcend their human problems, but only by ending them.

Crash’s brilliance is that it forces viewers to acknowledge the profound dysfunction of the modern world and our alienation from each other, emotionally and sexually. It’s both a transgressive act of filmmaking, and an examination of the psychological limitations of transgression. It ultimately acknowledges that the truly radical, transgressive act that solves all human suffering is death, but that that’s no true solution at all.

9 out of 10

Crash (1996, Canada/United Kingdom)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard; starring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill.