“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”
When successful film producer James Ballard veers into oncoming traffic, he collides head-on with another vehicle, killing one of its occupants. He emerges from the hospital a changed man, at once terrified but strangely energized by his experience. Unprepared for the feelings the crash has left him with, James is drawn into a counter-culture world in which the car crash has become a sexualized art form.
Crash is the 1996 psychological thriller/drama directed by David Cronenberg and stars James Spader as James Ballard, Deborah Kara Unger as Catherine Ballard, Holly Hunter as Dr. Helen Remington, Elias Koteas as Vaughn, and Rosanna Arquette as Gabrielle.
With Crash, director David Cronenberg holds no punches and nothing is sacred. For a director and screenwriter considered by some to be the unchallenged ruler of the controversial and shocking, Crash was to be Cronenberg’s crowning psychosexual achievement.
Based on the 1973 novel of the same name written by J. G. Ballard, the story is based on a real life paraphilia known as symphorophilia, in which sexual pleasure is derived from watching a disaster. A key ingredient of this scenario is that death is always on the table. And, in those cases where injury is the only result, the group of characters in the film Crash fetishize every bruise, every scar, every broken bone as if they are works of art – a new kind of body modification.
There are several key Cronenbergesque elements in J.G. Ballard’s Crash which make the subject matter fertile ground for one of the body horror genre’s true masters. More than the emotional and physical disfigurements sought after, endured, and treasured by the plot’s central characters, there are complex sexual notions that – not withholding the whole paraphilia bit – would prove challenging for a less-than-open-minded audience. Themes like open marriages, deviant sexual behavior, and homosexuality run rampant in Crash. And I like that about the story.
In fact, despite the controversy, I think Crash is one of the few films that actually gets the concept of bisexuality right. I know, I know. But hear me out.
Crash features two homosexual sex scenes. One, between its two male characters: James and Vaughn. The other, between its two female characters: Helen and Gabrielle. Both take place in Vaughn’s land yacht, the black and barely road worthy, Lincoln Continental.
Both scenes are decidedly less explicit than the heterosexual sex scenes in Crash. Equal in visual and emotional power to the heterosexual scenes, these moments of the characters’ bisexuality have nothing to do with the gender of those involved. In fact, the sexual energy and attraction is being derived from the external – their shared symphorophilia.
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There is also a suggestively bisexual moment. While watching a crash test video an aroused Helen places a hand in Gabrielle’s and James’ crotches and smiles. They are not alone in the room. In fact, almost every other member of the cast – lead or supporting – is in the room when this is happening. Some people see this as foreshadowing to some unseen ménage à trois between Gabrielle, Helen, and James. I take it at face value. It’s a brief interlude. The whole shot takes less than a minute. But, it tells us that everything is on the table and nothing is going to be seen as inappropriate by these people.
What works is that these scenes suggest a fluidity to our attractions and tastes, that speaks to a larger truth about human sexuality and bisexuality by extension.
Having been in a serious collision during my university days, I can share a certain connection with the character of James – but only so far. In the moments following his release from the hospital, as he sits in the back seat of a cab, he is tentative and fearful. For the first time, he seems to notice the traffic, the speed of life. For him, the change is immediate and palpable. He is no longer the same person – he has become fractured. Inside him now is the hole left vacant by the accident. The hole bored out of him in the knowing his actions, and lack thereof, have taken another man’s life.
It’s a powerful moment; a moment of transition – not only for the character but for the film. For Ballard, everything has been moving languidly around him for too long. Despite being in an open relationship with his wife, you can sense that James is in need of a little jolting. This crash – a result of James’ sleepwalking – is his wake up call.
Holly Hunter, who for me will always be Ed from Raising Arizona, turns in a raw, powerful performance in Crash as Dr. Helen Remington.
When James strikes her car, killing her husband, their paths become entwined – both emotionally and physically. It is Helen who brings James into the world of symphorophilia – for them, a close knit community fond of reenacting famous car crashes in which celebrities have lost their lives. And while Helen’s character is just the bridge by which James joins this community – she becomes increasingly less involved in James’ story arc – she is pivotal in driving the plot.
For Cronenberg, whose filmography is a veritable manifesto about technology’s oft times negative, transformative impact on the human experience (The Brood, Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers … I could go on), Crash is a logical progression. The film’s subject matter is mature and complicated, and I’m sure to some it will prove difficult. The film itself feels slow, uncomfortable. For fans of Cronenberg, the film is a near work of art and must be experienced.
Red Band Trailer:
Making of Featurette:
Wiki facts: Crash (1996)
Is Crash rotten or fresh?
How did Crash do at the box office?
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