People who experience car crashes feel a variety of reactions, curiosity among them, but leave it to David Cronenberg to use that ‘curiosity’ and swing it way leftfield. He adapts J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash. The protagonist is still a fictional version of ‘James’ Ballard (James Spader). But in this version, he is a Canadian healing from a car crash and has a fateful meeting with Vaughn (Elias Koteas) who photographs car crashes. The latter is into the crash fetish that James develops, changing the lives of the people within their circle.
In capturing these characters’ curiosities, Cronenberg reminds us of his own. It’s no secret that he fetishizes the human body in his movies more directly than all other directors. My first viewing of Crash was yesterday (I’m sorry). I’m risking using movie reviews as armchair psychology. Nonetheless, that first viewing made me assume that their fetish has its roots within seeking arousal in someone else’s weakness as a reflection of their own. Another way of looking at sex, kinky or vanilla, is when its participants experience a mutual vulnerability.
On repeat viewings though, which was yesterday *afternoon*, Crash still finds arousal within vulnerability but shows that as part of an Orwellian binary. Weakness is strength. James and his fellow survivor Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) have an affair. Part of those illicit meeting include watching Vaughn recreate James Dean’s crash, when we see his fellow recreator walk out of the car. The movie exposes that thrill in watching human invincibility, or the potential of that anyway. Humans are stronger than the machines we build, a revelation that these characters celebrate in their own, twisted way. Twisted, nonetheless, that normally brings erratic results except for this time, when the results are positive.
Crash met and still meets a mix of responses, although there are circles of cinephiles who cherish this movie like myself. During my few viewing sof this movie, I try to understand these negative reactions are aren’t in direct relation to those early critics being prudes. Yes, the characters indulge in insular groupthink and the movie reflects that. But then again, we expect this from a movie about fetishists. One can’t help but admire Cronenberg’s kink commitment. That commitment shows in scenes like James having sex with another crash survivor Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette). It’s a problematic scene because of Gabrielle’s different abilities, but one can’t help admire Cronenberg’s audacity.
The other binary that Cronenberg explores is the one between the dead and the living. Sometimes those binaries exist within the same entities but at others, he separates them. He depicts Toronto as a city unaware of its slow and eventual death, the arena of car crashes. He then juxtaposes these scenes with interior scenes of the characters having sex with each other,. James already has sex with Helen and Gabrielle, but he then has sex with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and Robert too. Strange as it sounds, but these scenes are the movie’s lifeblood. And these effectively arousing interactions on screen exist with complexity and purpose.
Watch Crash on MUBI.
- Rated: NC-17
- Genre: Drama
- Directed by: David Cronenberg
- Starring: Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, James Spader
- Produced by: David Cronenberg, Jeremy Thomas, Robert Lantos
- Written by: David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard
- Studio: Téléfilm Canada, The Movie Network
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