‘Crash’ At 25: Cronenberg’s Most Divisive Oddity

crash david cronenberg erotic thriller ballard james spader

Dead Sexy: A Column on Erotic Thrillers

David Cronenberg’s glacial and oddly moving fetish thriller Crash turns 25 this year. But has its depiction of futurism and kink become dated, or does this erotic thriller still shock?

“Slow down, slow down, not so fast,” a man moans. Not during sex—he’s in a car, and his driver is moving too quickly for his liking past a deadly car crash. The man has his camera poised; he is ready to take photos of the crumpled bonnets and dazed victims. The cars themselves, wrecked and steaming, look somewhat spent and post-coital. 

Crash, David Cronenberg’s fourteenth and most controversial feature film, is filled with such scenes that have to be seen to be believed. Having already established his reputation as an expert in bringing a certain poetic beauty to the macabre, he was the perfect choice to bring J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel to the screen. What’s more, Cronenberg’s love of body horror takes on a whole new life here: this was a book where characters believed that “wounds were the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.” Twenty-five years after Crash‘s release, audiences are still grappling with the unwieldiness of this provocative erotic thriller.

James (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) are in an open marriage: they have sex with other people and then describe these encounters to each other when they make love. One day, James is involved in a car accident. In the other car, one man immediately dies; the man’s wife (Holly Hunter) seems unperturbed and reveals her breast, apparently aroused by the horrific encounter. It’s this event that leads James and Catherine down a grease-stained tunnel of symphorophilia, i.e. sexual arousal from staging and watching a tragedy—in this case, car accidents. 

James Spader, a curio of an actor who always seems to play against his ostensible normalcy, is perfectly cast as James Ballard. Having established his predilection for sexual deviency in 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape—a trademark that would continue in 2002’s Secretary—Spader is the audience’s guide into this shattered world. Arguably, however, this film belongs to Deborah Kara Unger. Playing James’ wife Catherine, she contorts, winces and slithers through the film, seemingly the most emotionally affected by the twisted game but also an enabler of James’ involvement. Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette round out the supporting cast, playing upon their varied experience in Canadian arthouse cinema and Oscar-winning period dramas. This is Hunter as we’ve never seen her: jerky and goblinesque, all sleek bob and quiet violence. Gone is her sweet Southern charm as seen in Broadcast News, The Firm or Raising Arizona. In a cast with such startling and varied star-power, it’s remarkable that the cast’s performances bounce off one another with such oddly tempered chemistry. 

James Spader as James Ballard

Crash is at its most arresting when it makes explicit connections between body and automobile, ultimately reflecting how man’s obsession with technological advancement is linked to our most primal and hubris-inflected desires. “The real shock of Crash is not that people have sex in or near cars,” Zadie Smith mused in her re-appraisal of Ballard’s novel, “but that technology has entered into even our most intimate human relations. Not man-as-technology-forming but technology-as-man-forming.”

This is a world where wounds are poetry and stitches are kisses; where tracing the edge of scar tissue with a deft fingertip is as erotic as a caress. James fingers agitatedly at his seatbelt, as restrictive as bondage tying him to his seat. When we first meet Catherine, she places her breast against the chrome hood of a car; when she is later involved in a car crash, her husband pauses to breathe in the heady fumes of petrol before checking to see if she is unhurt. The potential consequences of their actions are given little credence, just like society’s obsessive pursuit of technological innovation—at whatever cost.

Indeed, there’s something ultimately masochistic about our relentless desire for more. Though a member of James and Catherine’s subculture, Vaughn, may posit his curiosity as one concerned with the “benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us,” his preoccupation can ultimately be distilled down into thanatos—Freud’s death-drive. It’s a common trope, not knowing the detrimental effects of something we’ve spawned ourselves before it’s too late; here, Frankenstein’s monster is let loose on the motorways. The misguidedness of the characters’ pursuit of futurism is clear. Though obsessed with the possibilities of “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology,” Vaughn mainly recreates events that occurred in the past: the car crashes of celebrities including James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. 

Deborah Kara Unger and James Spader as Catherine and James

Cronenberg bestows reverent, cinematic flair to scenes one should find repulsive. Unsurprising, considering the provocative, startling elegance of the source novel’s prose, where “fragments of tinted windshield set in [her] forehead like jewels.” Sleek chrome, glinting leather and neon headlights combine to create a moodboard of futuristic, cyberpunk beauty. In the original screenplay Cronenberg writes, in one scene, that Vaughn and Catherine have sex “like two semi-metallic human beings of the future, making love in a chromium bower.” But we’re gaslit into this Edenic vision, when what we’re ultimately watching is hell—death at its most traumatic. There are moments when sex scenes between characters appear almost romantic; Vaughn and James kissing with ragged breath, scrabbling at each other’s jeans like teenagers having an elicit dalliance. One is initially romanced by Gabrielle and Helen’s sexual encounter, before you remember with stark shock that they’re making love in the car their friend just died in. Cronenberg’s camera echoes these slippery shifts, windscreen-wiping between steady, distancing camerawork and vertigo-inducing POV motorway shots. 

If you’ve read this far, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that the film received a backlash of biblical proportions. It eventually found itself gracing the front page of the Daily Mail, with a headline that read: “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film.” The aptly and amusingly named Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary, spearheaded the film’s smear campaign. One review’s misleading and deliberately inflammatory description of “sex with cripples,” garnered the concern of disability activists. But when the BBFC reviewed Crash, they remarked how “the sexual content of the film was unremarkable in classification terms, and the violence was no stronger than could be found in many other features.” To be sure of their opinion, a British QC was consulted. As were a screening group of disabled people, in order to ascertain whether certain scenes—particularly a sex scene in which James symbolically penetrates Gabrielle’s vulva-shaped wound—were offensive. “Although the invited group did not generally enjoy the film,” the BBFC explained, “they concluded that its depiction of disabled people as being able to be both sexually attractive and active, (despite rather than because of their injuries), was generally a positive thing.”

Rosanna Arquette as Gabrielle

The Daily Fail’s puritannical campaign aside, it’s surprising that so many critics dismissed the film as being exploitative, purely by dint of its examination of kink. Why is deviant sexuality immediately conflated with trash? Deborah Kara Unger was rightfully so proud of her work in Crash that she submitted one of her sex scenes as her audition tape for David Fincher’s 1997 movie The Game. Though he initially thought it was a joke, she ended up starring alongside Michael Douglas.

Crash doesn’t glamorise nor admonish the violence it depicts. As the characters themselves admit, they will eventually pay for their actions with their lives. This is a rare film that is driven by something less tangible than plot, or character, or even desire. Like the futurism its players are obsessed with, this is an oddity that one can only feel, not explain.

Watch Crash on Google Play

Words by Steph Green

Part of Dead Sexy: A Column on Erotic Thrillers

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