reviewed by Greta Christina
Holy Jesus Christ on a raft.
Oy, my God.
I don't quite know how to even begin to describe Crash. I don't even know yet if I would call it a "good movie;" by the time it was over, I was too stunned to make much of a judgement about it. I think I'm going to need to see it at least two or three more times before I can decide if it's a flawed-but-valuable movie, well worth seeing if you have the stomach for it -- or Cronenberg's finest work to date. What I do know is that it left me, almost literally, breathless.
I suppose I could tell you the premise -- it's about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes. I could tell you how it's made and what it's like aesthetically -- it's an intensely visual movie, very quiet and very physical, relying heavily on images and glances and body language to get its meaning and mood across. (Which is a good thing; some of the dialogue -- well, okay, a lot of the dialogue -- is stilted and pretentious, and if this had been a dialogue-heavy movie it would have been insufferable. Fortunately, it's not.) I could get into a compare-and-contrast game about similarities and differences between the movie and the book -- or at least, I could have if I had managed to get more than halfway through the book before it made me so depressed and enervated that I had to either put it down or go stick my head in the oven. (Hint: I liked the movie a lot better. But in case these things matter to you, the novel's author, J.G. Ballard, has said that he's very happy with the film adaptation.) I could even describe the plot; a film producer, James Ballard (James Spader), gets into a car wreck that kills one of the passengers of the other car; he finds himself becoming erotically obsessed with car crashes, gets involved with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the woman who was in the car he crashed into (and the wife of the man who died), and is drawn into a small subculture of car-crash survivors with the same obsession.
But frankly, I don't know what this movie is really about, or what it really means. All I can honestly tell you is how it made me feel. Like the best of Cronenberg's work (Dead Ringers, The Fly, Naked Lunch, Scanners, Videodrome), it is deeply unsettling and compelling, disturbing and mesmerizing, difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. I found myself spacing out, not in a bored way but in a my-brain-wants-to-get-away-from-this-RIGHT-NOW way; at the same time, even in the same moments, I found myself staring at the screen, slack-jawed and fascinated, hoping that whatever was happening on the screen would keep going on indefinitely. By the end of the movie, I was sitting bolt upright in my seat, a knot in my stomach, clenching my fists and breathing in short, hard gasps.
Oh, yes -- and wanting desperately to shove my hand between my legs. Despite how creepy and unsettling it is -- or maybe because of it -- Crash is an intensely arousing movie. Or, to be more accurate, I personally found it to be an intensely arousing movie. Of course, as we all know, I am a desperately sick woman who is in need of serious medical attention. But somehow, I don't think I'm going to be the only person walking out of this movie with a slight nauseous feeling disturbingly blended with an urgent desire to go lie on top of a car and fuck. A recurring theme throughout the movie -- not a theme of ideas or events, but a theme of images -- is that eroticism is not so much a thing in itself as it is an approach, a perspective on things. Eroticism is not a breast, but a way of touching a breast; not high heels or black lace or leather, but the brightening of the fetishist's eye when it gazes at them; not the act of fucking, but the way it feels to be fucking.
And in the case of Crash, eroticism is not a car crash itself; it is the caress of a steering wheel while driving at high speed, the husky softness of a low voice describing the gory details of a fatal car accident, the silky smoothness of a camera shot that trails up the back of a scarred leg as if it were a seamed stocking. It is seeing the gash in a car door as a dripping cunt, seeing the rescue equipment forcing open that gash like a relentless cock. The point of Crash -- or one of the points, anyway -- is that the human libido can eroticize anything. Absolutely anything.
But there is a frustration underlying the fetish, a barrier right at the heart of the eroticism. So much of the sex and sexuality that takes place in Crash is only an approximation, an approach, to the real thing that the characters are fetishizing. They have sex in crashed cars, they have sex in moving cars that could crash at any time, they gaze hungrily at car-crash photos and crash-test videos and re-enactments of famous car crashes from history. They have sex with crash survivors, fondling their scars, caressing a black-and-chrome leg brace as if it were fetish gear. But all of this perverse activity is at the perimeter of the real thing; connected with the car crash, but not the car crash itself. The sexual yearning is just that; a yearning, a reaching for something transcendent and unattainable. The thing in itself, the erotic experience of a fatal car crash, is, by definition, something they can only experience once, something they can only experience if they are willing to never experience it -- or anything else -- ever again.
Now, it could be that this is an observation about fetishism. It does sometimes seem (and I speak from experience here) that a sexual fetish is, by its nature, ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps "unsatisfying" isn't the word I want; I don't mean unpleasurable, or worthless, or unhealthy, or in any way bad. What I mean is that a fetish has to do with idealization, a deeply ingrained feeling about what the fetish object means; and the reality of the fetishistic experience never quite lives up to the possibility that the idealization suggests. If you fetishize (to use some personal examples) belts, or hard floors, or metal, or the smack of a hand on your ass, or the image of a woman bent over with her skirt pulled up and her panties pulled down, the reality of a sexual encounter that includes those objects or images winds up being an approximation of the ideal; a curve on a graph that approaches zero, that comes infinitely close to zero, but that never quite reaches zero itself.
And yet -- this is true of any sexual experience. It isn't just about fetishism. The dissolving of self that sex reaches for, losing yourself in another or absorbing another into yourself ... it's not that it's not real, but it's incomplete, and imperfect, and impermanent.
And I think that's what the characters is Crash are seeking; a permanent transcendence, an intimacy that doesn't dissolve back into selfhood, a sexual high with an intensity that leaves sameness behind forever. James and his wife Catherine's (Deborah Kara Unger) everyday, non-car-crash-connected sex life is chilly and mechanistic, exotic but rather detached; it only approaches transcendence when they begin to explore the erotic and intimate possibilities of swift, bloody death in powerful machines. At the end of the movie (warning: small plot giveaway imminent), when James and Catherine have both been thrown clear of the movie's final car crash, James gingerly approaches Catherine and asks her if she's alright; when she tells him she is, he caresses her gently and reassures her, "Maybe the next one, darling. Maybe the next one." It's a common theme in a lot of Cronenberg's films; the destructive power of the pursuit of transcendence, and the pointlessness and despair of life without that pursuit.
So in a sense, even though it is extremely sexually perverted, I guess I don't see Crash as being about sexual perversion per se. I see it as being about the dangers and needs for intimacy and connection. The characters aren't meant to be strictly believable people, and the movie isn't about real people, except in -- oh, God, here comes the M-word, and I was trying so hard not to use it this time -- the metaphorical sense. Cronenberg isn't interested in human nature; he's interested in carrying human nature to an inhuman extreme, taking experience to its illogical conclusion and seeing where it goes.
At times this can be a problem; there are places where Crash stretches credibility, places during the slow bits (and there are a few of those scattered throughout the movie) where I found myself wondering, "What do these people do for a living, anyway? How is it they manage to just drive around all day? How do they pay the rent? And how do they manage to have all this public sex in all these cars without ever getting caught?" But for the most part, this doesn't get in the way at all. Crash is almost like a fairy tale -- except it isn't as simple as heroes and villains and happy endings and the moral of the story -- and like a fairy tale, plausibility is far less important than internal consistency. It isn't one of these movies that tells you how it's supposed to be. It's one of those much rarer treasures, a movie that tells you, in all its wild, imaginative, excessive extremity, how it is.
Copyright 1997 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.
Note: Although the passage of time has mellowed my opinion of this movie somewhat (I now definitely think of it as "flawed but valuable" rather than "Cronenberg's finest work to date"), I still think Crash is a damn fine movie, and I still stand by 95% of what I said about it. I realize that this is a minority opinion, but that's just too damn bad.