Crash (1996)

D: David Cronenberg
S: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette

David Cronenberg has always made demands on his audience far in excess of their reasonable expectations. From his earliest shlock-horror efforts Shivers and Rabid, he imbued a familiar genre with a deep metaphysical concern with the mutation of the body and a visceral, tangible penetration beyond the veil of humanity into the nether realms of the soul. He later gave this place a name "The New Flesh" (in Videodrome) and drove further and further into an unearthly universe where human experience constantly teetered on the fringes of something both frightening and exhilarating. In Naked Lunch he finally went as far as he could into this metaphoric fantasy, using the writings and life experiences of the late William Burroughs as a stepping stone. Then, having explored it as fully as he could, he came out the other side and bade farewell to the new flesh in M. Butterfly, where a denial of physical reality and the possibility of a change in its parameters (the homosexuality of Jeremy Irons' character) led to despair and suicide. Death is the final reality, a brutal fact which Cronenberg has avowed difficulty accepting, and which all of his films have sought to explore. In M. Butterfly he made explicit and ordinary all that had been masked by fantasy and found metaphors in the realities of human experience which served the same purpose as his monsters from the id.

Crash is the next step in this exploration, a film which deals with humans eager to find a place beyond the confines of society and beyond the limits of their bodies. It is not enough for them to use their physical integrity and explore each other sexually; they use the icons of human progress, machines, to find new expressions of their dedicated perversion: courting death.

J.G. Ballard was unapologetic about his novel on its initial release. He did not deny or decry the fact that it was clearly pornography. But graphic descriptions of sex and violence were the tools he needed to take the reader where he wanted them to go. The only way to explore the limits of society is to surpass them, and if in doing so, you set new precedents, you are merely taking an inevitable step in human evolution, forcing people to question just what the limits are and why they exist. It is obvious why such ideas would appeal to Cronenberg, equally at home with conceptions of evolution, and even the mating of man and machine (seen in various guises in Videodrome ,The Fly, and even his little-seen racing movie Fast Company).

The resultant cinematic adaptation is a film which on the surface and without careful attention seems like much ado about nothing. It begins with a series of sex scenes and then proceeds to chart the story of Spader (whose character is named, as in the novel, James Ballard), a sexually adventurous but frustrated husband, who, following a head-on vehicular collision with Hunter and an encounter with creepy 'doctor' Koteas finds himself in a subculture of crash victims obsessed with repeating their experiences, courting death in the name of sexual satisfaction (or is it vice versa?). It is a cold and alienating film with unsympathetic characters engaged in an incomprehensible fetish, and puts so much flesh and twisted metal on screen that it can become boring or silly.

But it is this very excess which provides the key to understanding it. The sex in this film is not meant to be titillating, and it isn't. On the contrary, the numbness evoked by constant exposure shifts the focus from the mechanics of bump and grind to the human relationships behind the acts. It gets to the point where even sexual positions have meaning and demonstrate how the characters relate to one another on an emotional level. The more extreme the sex becomes, the more challenge the characters offer to the expectations of the moral universe in which they live. Similarly the loving photography of shining bumpers and steering wheels (and bodies framed against them) is not so much about the pleasures the image itself as what it might mean on an intellectual level.

Cronenberg's demands on his audience are quite great, requiring a certain abandonment of narrative expectation and a level of engagement with the image. He goes aesthetically further with this film than he has ever gone before, firmly entering the realms of limited-release art-house cinema. The film is aimed at those who care to join him on his journey and have the cinematic references and critical tools with which to do so. The result is likely to either intrigue or insult you, depending on your predisposition to the material, and the hugely negative critical response and the special award at the Cannes Film Festival were both predictable and inevitable.

This is not to say that the film is terribly profound. Neither does it imply that Cronenberg has sought symbolic obscurity into order to excuse pornography (as many critics maintained). Crash is not pretentious or trendy, because it is a meaningful and comprehensible film with clearly defined aims and goals which are achieved in the course of its running time. It does not attempt to place itself above its audience, or arrogantly assume its own aesthetic superiority over other films. It explores Cronenberg's familiar moral and spiritual terrain of death, transformation and evolution, and is understandable to anyone who has ever seen Scanners,The Dead Zone or Dead Ringers (or any of his popular successes). But instead of gory monsters from within changing human behaviour and threatening society, he gives us people who use their bodies and their cars to change their world, with often terrible consequences for themselves and for the moral order they challenge.

Cronenberg skilfully crafts a cinematic world which is faintly unreal from the outset, constructed from the shining curves of metal vehicles and the soft tones of human flesh, and accompanied by Howard Shore's eerily metallic score. The visual tone is sensual, yet cold, with the sharp cinematography and sleek production design contributing greatly to an authentic yet constructed world which suitably represents the attempt by human beings to control their environment with machines and buildings.

From the moment the characters appear on screen, you are asked to exceed normal expectation, surpassing embarrassment or arousal as the sex scenes go on and on and on. When the cars then begin smashing into one another and the characters become more and more obsessive and outrageous (Vaughan's reconstruction of the death of James Dean is as unsettling as any scene of mutation from any Cronenberg's films), you realise that you are immersed in a world of human experience which while not quite the same as your own, is not unfamiliar to the ruminations of the soul.

Spader and wife Deborah Unger begin their journey with sex and end it with death, thereby encompassing the wealth of human experience. They begin with a series of infidelities which they hope will bring them excitement, and end by crashing into one another on the highway with the same expectation. That neither act is fully satisfying, or fully realised, is precisely the point. There is no more satisfaction from meaningless copulation than there is from deliberate car crashes, as neither has the shock that only an experience with the unknown and unexpected can provide.

These people are seeking fulfilment, and are doomed never to find it, because finding it would mean they have gone beyond the limits of humanity, which is impossible except in death. So they are locked into an eternal cycle of experimentation and play in the field of limits, damned to denial until death finally claims them and they can no longer relate their experiences to others (including the viewer). Only the messianic pervert Vaughan (Koteas) seems to achieve his aims, and precedes them into the great unknown at the climax of the film. Along the way they meet several fellow travellers, including badly injured Arquette, whose leg braces offer fascinating biomechanical possibilities and whose wounds provide a Cronenbergian method of sexual penetration too hideous to be portrayed explicitly on screen, but clearly implied in one of the movie's more publicised moments.

It is a difficult journey which makes great demands on its audience. Yet it is one which holds together perfectly and arrives at exactly the point where one might reasonably expect it to within a space of time perhaps a bit too protracted for its own good. But put simply, Crash is a film which proceeds within its own frames of reference from start to finish and offers an opportunity for the audience to come with it. Yet it does not invite them, or demand their presence, and it is perhaps a weakness that it is so uncompromising and narcissistic. But it is beautifully put together, a directorial tour-de-force which comes into focus only when placed alongside the body of Cronenberg's work.

Again, the question must be asked whether or not the audience should be expected to be forearmed with this kind of weaponry in order to fully appreciate the experience, which in turn raises the question of what is the purpose of the cinema in the first place.

But films like this are necessary in the long run, because their integrity and extremitism forces a reconsideration of one's own moral and aesthetic expectations. You are free to reject it out of hand, or embrace it wholeheartedly. But either way, the work exists, and in years to come it will produce less and less outrage, not because society has become more permissive, but because society has transcended the limitations within which the work of art was viewed in its own epoch.

For better or for worse, Crash forces its audience to ask questions of themselves, and while they are questions Cronenberg has asked before (and Ballard asked twenty years earlier), they are none the less relevant to our conception of ourselves and our world. It bears the mark of a true work of art; both technically proficient and intellectually challenging. That it does not provide answers, and professes an amorality which some find offensive is more a mark of the maturity demanded of its audience than a spiritual weakness on the part of the artist. On the contrary, if Crash causes you to question the form and structure of human life and the nature of death, it may well draw you towards a moral or spiritual framework which provides satisfaction, for which the work should not be condemned, but appreciated.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.