No Canadian movie has ever generated so much controversy. At the Cannes International Film Festival last May, it shocked the world’s most jaded filmgoers and generated a raging debate in a jury that awarded it a special prize for “audacity, originality and daring.” Now its American distributor, New Line Pictures, has delayed its U.S. opening until next year amid reports that Ted Turner, who owns New Line, was so distressed by the film that he balked at releasing it. Why all the fuss? It is not just the sex, although Crash does contain more sex scenes than any mainstream movie that comes to mind. And it is not just the violence. Director David Cronenberg has made other films that are more viscerally horrifying. No, what is most controversial about Crash, upsetting even people who have not seen it, is the idea behind the movie—that someone could be sexually aroused by a car wreck.
Crash is about characters who are turned on by watching crashes, re-enacting them, hovering around accident scenes, admiring scars—and slamming into each other on freeways. The premise sounds too perverse for words. And in dramatic terms, it requires a heady suspension of disbelief. But metaphorically, it serves as a fascinating vehicle for the vision that drives all Cronenberg’s work—his view of human sexuality as an invention in progress, mutating by scientific accident. The director has often portrayed technology in anthropomorphic terms. And of all machines, the automobile
is the most sexualized. It is the one we wear, a second skin. Crash is about sex between man and machine, flesh and metal. Its characters are driven by a pathological desire to collide—to crack the enamelled surface of a hollow existence.
Based on the 1973 novel by British author J. G. Ballard, the movie centres on James Games Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who fuel their idling love life with the open pursuit of extramarital affairs. After James is injured in a car crash with a doctor named Helen (Holly Hunter), the progress of infidelity takes a dangerous turn. Helen introduces James to a cult-like group of car-crash aficionados led by a scarred scientist named Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who spells out his obsession, and the film’s theme, as “something we are all intimately involved in—the reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” Serving as a den mother in the crash clubhouse is Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a disabled accident victim in leg-brace bondage.
The narrative unfolds as a stream of bumper-to-bumper sex scenes, at least a dozen of them. They range from a tryst in a parking garage to a backseat bout of rough sex in a car wash. The eroticism is cold, clinical and distanced. And as the movie runs through every possible coupling combination among the characters, the repetition is numbing.
But throughout those scenes, and the rest of the film, Cronenberg’s camera casts a nar-
cotic spell. Although much of the film is shot outdoors, on and around Toronto’s expressways, it has an interior feel, as if the actors were enclosed in the director’s mind. His lens creeps around his characters with a hushed sense of surveillance. Yet beneath the film’s forbidding surface, a whimsical humor is at work. The director stages a re-enactment of the car crash that killed James Dean as a playful parody of the chicken-racing episode in Rebel Without a Cause. There is a droll scene of Helen and Gabrielle watching crash-test dummy videos as a kind of pornography. And double entendre lurks beneath every line of dialogue. But the jokes are not set up. They slide quietly by, and are gone before there is time to laugh.
The performances, meanwhile, all seem geared to the synchromesh subtlety of Cronenberg’s direction. Spader’s character offers the closest thing there is to a protagonist. But as he cruises through the film— boyish, bemused and morally oblivious— empathy just rolls off his back. As Vaughan, Koteas plays the (auto) motivational leader, a voyeur twitching with feral curiosity. And the actor conveys that obsession with compelling intricacy.
Cronenberg’s latest is exquisitely alienating
The women are more elliptical. It is hard to fathom what motivates them. Hunter’s character, in fact, seems no more than a narrative device—a flaw inherited from the novel. As it turns out, the Canadian actors—Koteas and Unger— steal the movie from the Hollywood stars. Unger is amazing. Often naked, and intensely vulnerable, she uses the barest of words and gestures to convey invisible depths of sadness and desire.
Crash is exquisitely composed but emotionally impenetrable. It works on the mind and the eye, leaving the viewer shocked, haunted and bewildered—wondering what on earth to feel, which is perhaps the whole point of the exercise. For all the controversy surrounding it, Crash is, in the end, a cere bral ride, an archly existential excursion into sex, death and alienation. No wonder it was a hit in France. It defies the thumbs-up, thumbs-down school of criticism. It is brilliant and severely beautiful. Recommending it, however, is a dodgy proposition.
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