Strip away the abstract concept of love and what’s left is primal desire fueled by need. But human beings don’t like being told they’re animals, so they allow their imaginations to construct fantasies to help them justify those needs. J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash was pornography for philosophs, with technology as the illusion of choice. A secret society indulges in car sex, leading to accidents as erotic set pieces. The novel and David Cronenberg’s film adaptation implicitly state that crashing cars during intercourse allows us to feel genuine sensations as opposed to the numbness of society, jobs, and conversation. It’s a far out, all or nothing premise. What’s disturbing to audiences isn’t that Crash condemns such amorality, but that its characters are stretching their battered and scarred bodies into something new. Very little is discovered about these people besides their extreme proclivities. To give you an idea: the character named Ballard (James Spader) winds up sticking his dick into the serrated leg wound of a crash survivor (Rosanna Arquette) and walks away happier for it.
Anyone willing to go along for the ride may feel repulsed, but Cronenberg has used grotesque images in his work to show mankind’s ability to transform itself. If it weren’t automobiles, which summon up the right metaphor for full throttle sex, it would be computers (eXistenZ) or television (Videodrome). Cronenberg has made frequent claims that his work has little to do with technology, but he continually returns to the concept of a “new flesh” forged from manmade industry. Whether you see the fusion of Flesh and Other in his movies as a blessing or a curse pretty much sums up your definition of 20th Century Disease: Are we so bored with life that we resort to self-mutilation to define ourselves, and is that really any better?
Cronenberg seems to think so. His final image of two crash survivors groping each other and whispering, “Maybe next time, darling,” while an overturned automobile rests beside them is an optimistic one—a happy ending for a married couple that’s communicating better now than they ever have before. The three sex scenes that open Crash show how desperate this modern husband and wife are at the start, having extramarital sex in public places, then coming home to sadly fuck each other and describe their increasingly banal affairs. Since we’re given almost zero insight into Ballard or his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), with no hobbies or defining characteristics, we’re left with blank slates. That’s 20th Century Disease for you: marriage, perfect clothes, a lovely house, affluent but non-distinctive jobs (he’s a commercial filmmaker), and sex devoid of mystery.
But Crash isn’t about urban alienation. After smashing up his car driving home from work, Ballard quickly discovers an underground community of crash addicts. He begins with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), who collided with him while they were both on their way home from work. Their crash was like ferocious quickie sex: a moment of impact, all shattered glass and busted fenders, followed by a long, slow breath and a reveal of her scarred breast when she tears off her seatbelt. The perversity is made more sinister when her husband is hurled through Ballard’s windshield and immediately killed—something neither the shell-shocked survivors nor Cronenberg call attention to afterwards. It’s the cold survival logic of Darwin, where libertarians leave their past behind as if it were dead.
Remington and Ballard don’t waste time on small talk. As soon as they’re out of the hospital, they begin a torrid affair screwing each other in the front seat of Ballard’s new car. Then they, and Ballard’s wife, are introduced to one of Cronenberg’s more memorable monster prophets, Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a scarred survivor of staged car crashes replicating the deaths of celebrities like James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Looking like a Frankenstein’s monster of scars and leather, Koteas is a philosophy-spouting guru (“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event”) surrounded by a group of crash victims as Warhol superstars. Arquette has almost no dialogue but remains the most vivid presence in Crash, decked out in leg and back braces as body armor. Ballard, Catherine, and Remington quickly recede into the background, with Vaughan dictating their life of staged accidents, sex in cars, photographed car crashes, photographed sex in cars, and the attempt to break their way into something profound. They never really do.
The characters are treated with all the sympathy of amoebas seen through a microscope, and are less important than the sensations they pursue. Vaughan and Catherine fondling each other in the back seat while Ballard drives through a car wash, gazing at them in the rearview mirror, feels like a head trip back to the womb. When they stop, minutes later, to visit a car accident that’s all hunks of smoking metal and busted-up, non-communicative survivors, Vaughan rages through taking photographs—and somehow his gum chewing seems the sleaziest thing here. It’d be grotesque if Cronenberg weren’t viewing it all dispassionately, with that passive, obsessive, strangely Canadian voyeurism. It doesn’t feel icky because it asks the question, “Let’s see how it all works,” and that these weird beings are forging some sort of new community out of their collective desires.
The minimalist storytelling feels hermetically sealed, somehow. As if giving the characters any passion outside of what Cronenberg is interested in would humanize them and make them vulnerable to our judgment as audience members. Instead, we’re told that this is the world they’re in, without excuses or pity. The cinematography and score, by longtime Cronenberg partners Peter Suschitzky and Howard Shore, respectively, feel distant and tinged with an unusual combination of grayish metal and sensual longing. This provides the essential soulful quality of Crash, and elevates it above a story of sick individuals resorting to the most primitive mating rituals as fantasy or escapism. Cronenberg takes them seriously, and if he takes himself and his thesis a little seriously too, at least he parcels out a certain kind of egghead intellectual humor. When Ballard questions Vaughan about “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology,” Vaughan snickers that his B.S. theory was a clever ruse to get curiosity seekers through the door. In other words, psychobabble is cheap. Just shut up and fuck me.