Directed by: David Cronenberg | 100 minutes | drama | Actors: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill, Yolande Julian, Cheryl Swarts, Judah Katz, Nicky Guadagni, Ronn Sarosiak, Boyd Banks, Markus Parilo, Alice Poon, John Stoneham Jr.
A story about people getting excited about car accidents doesn’t seem like something that many people are excited about; and admittedly, it isn’t, judging by the varying reactions to David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’, based on a novel by JG Ballard. It is all the more admirable that Cronenberg succeeds in making the strange urges and desires of the main characters seem credible and in making ‘Crash’ a largely fascinating portrait of people who search in vain for stimuli that make them feel complete again – or human. – to feel. The entire film is based on this interesting theme and its successful portrayal. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to keep the main characters and storyline interesting for the entire runtime, but the film comes a long way.
In essence, the motivations of the characters in ‘Crash’ are not new. In ‘Fight Club’, for example, the characters also went into extreme physical activity – through the ‘fight clubs’ from the title – in order to feel that they are alive. And in real life, for example, there is the phenomenon where people hang themselves on meat hooks in order to be stimulated. But you can probably look for it in normal ‘daring’ like diving off a cliff or jumping out of a plane. Or… all kinds of (kinky) sex. Add this together and the result is – pretty much – the movie ‘Crash’.
Yes, it’s fairly new for people to get a kick out of car wrecks and accidents, twisted metal and other materials, but apart from the aspect that the sexual stimuli are (indirectly) linked to suffering and even death, it’s a reasonably healthy, or in anyway understandable, impulse. But of course that danger and the proximity of death is precisely an important aspect. And an inevitable last step towards achieving a new kind of ecstasy, and a new kind of body.
In that respect, ‘Crash’ fits seamlessly into the oeuvre of David Cronenberg, a filmmaker who constantly highlights people who are looking for a new body shape, a new identity. A metamorphosis often takes place, in which the old body is rejected and a kind of fusion between forms arises. Between body and metal, for example, or a fleshly and virtual body (as in ‘eXistenZ’).
Think of the credo ‘long live the new flesh’ in ‘Videodrome’, in which the main character gets together with his TV set and inserts a video tape into an opening in his stomach. Or the fusion between a fly and Seth Brundle in ‘The Fly’, which provides a euphoric experience for the main character (dubbed Brundlefly).
‘Crash’ opens with the couple James Ballard (James Spader) and Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) who try to bring some tension in their (open) relationship with other sexual partners. Ballard is a film producer who has intermission sex with a crew member. Standing in an airplane hangar, Catherine presses one of her breasts against the smooth cold material of an airplane and licks the device as she is taken by a man behind her. When they return home, the partners tell about their sexual experiences, without enjoying it much. Little seems to be able to arouse them and they seem to live their lives mechanically and sleepwalking.
Until James has a car accident and comes to new insights and urges. Recovering from his wrecked car, he looks around and focuses on the twisted metal, the broken glass, the battered bodies, feeling a strange kind of excitement over him. He makes eye contact with the surviving woman (Holly Hunter) in the car he crashed into, and as she tries to break free, she uncovers—accidentally? – a breast and gets an (extra) erotic charge for both of them throughout the episode.
Both end up in the hospital where they meet Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who appears to be a medical photographer as he walks around in a white coat and comes to examine Ballard’s injuries and mutilations in detail. But he turns out to be a random ‘passer-by’ who turns out to be fascinated by car accidents. He re-enacts famous (fatal) car accidents – such as James Dean’s – for a select few, including his disabled – and braced and braced – wife (Rosanna Arquette), and gets a certain kind of excitement from this, which becomes more and more explicit throughout the film. While doing research and watching footage of accidents, several attendees are self-gratifying and during the course of the film, all combinations of the main characters will have sex with each other. Usually in a car.
The reason that these bizarre situations still seem quite believable is on the one hand because the characters appear convincingly fatalistic and dull; – with the exception, perhaps, of Arquette, who seems to enjoy it the most – and on the other hand, because Cronenberg and his cameraman Peter Suschitzky portray the wrecks, materials and battered bodies ‘lovingly’ and almost voyeuristic, so that you can go quite far with the obsessions of the characters. We see shiny logos, bent hoods, crutches, pins in legs, and a medical harness or support corset shaped like a kinky sm attribute. Erotic penetrations come in all kinds of new forms and variations, for example of metal in metal (in car accidents), and metal in meat (during car accidents, or via medical devices). But there are also new openings that arouse lust in ‘Crash’; the usual spots are no longer interesting enough, fishnet stockings are torn to reveal deep scars and wounds and approach them lovingly.
Can we still accept this, things get a lot more difficult when Vaughan, James and Catherine pass a violent and tragic car accident on the highway and take pictures from all sides, including the victims. The way in which firefighters cut the car open with bolt cutters is especially admired. Catherine sits down next to a victim on the asphalt without saying a word and smokes a cigarette. Later, she sits in one of the cars, while Vaughan takes pictures, as if it were a normal photo shoot. Vicarious shame creeps up on you. It is the bounds that are inevitably crossed in the shaping of new bodies and the search for new stimuli. The inevitable final step is death; then the real new form begins.
When you view ‘Crash’ in this thematic and stylistic way, the film is almost infinitely fascinating and you could talk about it for hours. However, as a personal portrait of (the journey of) various characters, the film is a lot less successful. It takes a while before all the theme is presented in all its implications and with all the interesting aspects, such as the five main characters, their characteristics and the subculture of Vaughan and his recreated accidents. In addition, the intimate images of flesh and metal and the raw hypnotic music of Howard Shore provide an intoxicating atmosphere for a long time. But it’s not enough to keep the story interesting in terms of content. The characters develop little or no – which is partly an unavoidable consequence of their aimlessness and mechanical actions – and there is also little variation in the situations that are presented to us. Yes, we keep seeing different people having sex with each other, and this happens in different places and maybe with a slightly different context, but essentially the same ideas are being communicated here all the time. Viewers who can’t do enough with the theme will therefore get bored too quickly. That ‘Crash’ is a film that stays with you, makes you think, and makes you look at bodies, sexuality and identity in new ways, is one thing that is certain. That almost by definition makes ‘Crash’ a worthwhile film.