"Crash is an autobiographical novel in the sense that it is about my inner life, my imaginative life. It is true to that interior life, not the life I have actually lived."
A survived car accident can be one of the most exciting, disturbing and hallucinatory events in a person's life, and not simply because of life endangerment and pain. Time is sped up, then suspended; physical and mental sensations are heightened, blurring reality. Life feels strangely, in the moment but dazzlingly surreal. And yet, a car accident is such a common occurrence that when we drive by one we frequently do so with a titillated, detached interest.
Inside cars, those speeding microcosmic shelters, we see distinct personalities -- aggressive, meek, and distracted -- the potential of which Godard envisioned in his extraordinary car wreck loop Week End. To enter these personal realms, we act in mildly subversive ways -- honking at a trucker, making an enraged cutoff, flirting on the freeway. Arranging this entry erotically so as to combine man with machine with sex is less familiar. But perversions often rear up in mundane environments, especially ones surrounded by seat belts, door locks and steel.
David Cronenberg, the auteur known for turning supposedly "safe" environments (apartment complexes, your psychiatrist, hospitals, the gynecologist, the small town family) into terrifying, sometimes terrifyingly funny, erotic and reality-shaking locales, penetrated the world of the automobile and stretches its "normalcy" tenfold. Adapted from J.G. Ballard's brilliant novel, Crash is a rare picture with unconventional plotting. Cronenberg constructs the exposition, action and conclusion (as well as its subtext) through sex scenes, scenes that open and flower or, depending on your viewpoint, grow increasingly perverse throughout the film's rather short running time.
The story: James Spader is the TV-commercial producer, James Ballard, who is introduced to the auto-erotic world of peculiar scientist Vaughan (Elias Koteas) by Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) a woman he meets via a near-fatal car accident, and with whom he first experiences the automobile's turn on potential. James, his wife Catherine (the strikingly icy Deborah Kara Unger) and Remington then join Vaughan and his subculture of dazed crash survivors. Most stunning is Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a walking Helmut Newton fetish doll of scars, leg braces and support suits (she is a glorious vision). They swap partners not only to satisfy their craving for dangerous, pulse-quickening sex, but also for an exploration of what J.G. Ballard calls "psyhic fulfillment."
From its opening shot -- Catherine laying her breast on the cold wing of an airplane -- Crash immediately expresses its alignment of technology and the human body, a physical relationship that occurs daily, though we don't often notice it. Vaughan leads James and Catherine to a sexual awakening with their mechanical connections, infusing their human relationship with the charge its lost through deadened senses and alienation. There are negative ramifications to these people's sometimes gruesome acts, but there is also a broadened knowledge of the world around them and the creation of a strange beauty through their meticulously visual orchestrations.
Like contact between two cars (even tailgating), the movie's sex is rarely face-to-face, revealing the couple's disconnections, but also the idea that they're stretching toward something. As the picture unfolds, James' desire builds into a kind of perversion (though Cronenberg doesn't judge) yet, also becomes more personal: After Catherine's rough coupling with Vaughan in a car wash (the scene's commingling of cleaning fluids, sperm, car seats and human skin is the movie's best visualization of Ballard's language), James kisses her bruises with a tenderness previously unexpressed. At this moment, when we see that the couple is truly in love, we grapple with both the benefit of their experience and its implications, and questions that we cannot immediately answer bubble to the surface.
Obvious queries came to me: Is Crash a cautionary tale about people so numbed by the modern world that they must seek excitement in dangerous measures? Is it a healthy union of man, machine and sex? Is it simply a turn-on? I think the answers fall somewhere in the more morally abstract territory of, there is no yes or no. Though the novel's relentless descriptions of bodily fluids and organs coalescing with twisted steel ("his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered forever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine") are rendered less graphic by Cronenberg, Ballard's vision of the "liberation of human and machine libido" remains potently intact. And by picture end, the movie feels auto-erotic romantic.
In both novel and film form, Crash takes a non-moral and non-celebratory approach (though the tableauxs are fantastic) to its subject matter, creating an alternative perception of the physical world that is as beautiful as its is horrific. And that amalgamation is, unlike many movies and, true to Cronenberg, disturbingly, unnervingly sexy. And very human. Enough to make you check yourself. Or at least check yourself in the rear-view mirror.