Somewhere in the middle of Crash, the remarkable new film from David Cronenberg, James Ballard (James Spader) is caught in traffic. The cars on the highway are at a standstill, stymied by an impact farther up the blacktop. Ballard is driving a vintage Lincoln Continental, the kind of convertible JFK rode through Dallas. The car belongs to Ballard’s new friend Vaughan (Elias Koteas, from Exotica), a visionary of sorts who sees car crashes as “fertilizing,” rather than destructive, events. In the car with Ballard and Vaughan is Ballard’s wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who is growing more and more attracted to Vaughan — she and Ballard seem to achieve sexual bliss more and more often by comparing notes on their most recent adulteries. You could almost consider this menage a trois a special kind of post-nuclear family.

Ballard eases the Lincoln into the breakdown lane and cruises serenely alongside the stream of cars, finally coming across the steel and chrome carnage itself. Vaughan’s body juts up out of the Lincoln with his beloved camera pressed to his face, flashbulb popping. It’s a spectacular crash — at least three cars were involved. Ballard pulls off the road entirely and the three get out of the Lincoln. Splitting up and investigating the scene, Ballard, Vaughan and Catherine are assimilated into the spectacle. Vaughan stalks the victims, taking snapshots with impunity. The lovely, skeletal Catherine takes a seat next to a woman whose facial features (we see as she turns toward the camera) are crossed with blood and grue. Ballard watches from the periphery as firefighters use saws and heavy-duty shears to perform cesarean surgery on the cars and birth the bloody drivers and passengers encased inside.

Imagine the angels from Wings of Desire investigating the highway pile-up from Godard’s Weekend — that’s the paranormal mood at this crash scene. Further imagine that those angels began taking dirty pictures of one another amid the wreckage, and you’ll get a sense for what Cronenberg has nearly accomplished. It’s a movie about sexual deviance taken to an extreme that borders on farce, a movie about the ways human relationships are transforming in the latter years of the 20th century. It would be easy for Crash to dissolve into high, mordant comedy — indeed, this is a witty movie — but the tone is dry and mournful throughout. These characters are truly ghosts among the living.

Crash is based on the 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard that used clinical, pornographic language to describe sexual acts in the vocabulary of automobile fetishists. Semen is smeared across instrument panels, the marks of hood ornaments and dashboard moldings are embedded in flesh like blistered tattoos, and orgasms are intimately related to the thrumming of a car wash, the smell of grease and gasoline, and the geometry of crumpled metal. The film version is, if you can believe it, more restrained than the book. But it’s an indicator of Cronenberg’s considerable skill that material like this seems at all credible on celluloid.

Crash was a rumored Cronenberg project for many years, even before it became a reality. Certainly it had that sordid high-concept gloss to it, a Cronenberg trademark: underground community of sexual deviants gets off on car crashes. And of course it seemed to fit well with Cronenberg’s long-standing mission of investigating the transformative power of modern technology. His first commercial feature was the quasi-hedonistic Shivers (also 1973), which in its apocalyptic treatment of venereal disease weirdly prefigured the AIDS epidemic. He followed that up with films featuring, among other things, mutant sex organs (Rabid, 1977), mutant superpowers (Scanners, 1981), and mutant cable TV (Videodrome, 1983). His unnerving Dead Ringers (1988) made disquieting use of a gleaming, fetishistic toolkit of gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women, and now Crash suggests that our obsession with ever more tortuous permutations of sexual stimulation is itself a mutation — or, perhaps more chillingly, an evolution. At least in a metaphorical sense, Cronenberg’s sympathies seem, as always, to be on the side of the deviants.

The film opens with three sex scenes — bang, bang, bang — about which much has been made elsewhere. But it’s simply introductory material, punctuated furiously by a crash scene in which Ballard, driving down a highway at night trying to read a map by dome light, loses control of his car, hops the median, and speeds through oncoming traffic for a few harrowing moments before colliding head-on with another car. Metal twists and windshields shatter in real time, and Ballard — who’s belted in — winds up with a corpse in his passenger seat. Still strapped into the other car is the dead man’s wife, Helen (Holly Hunter), and Ballard can only stare blankly at her as she struggles to undo her own belt — somehow exposing her left breast in the process. That sort of fortuitous exhibitionism is emblematic of Crash‘s unlikely sex drive. (The boy-meets-girl premise of the screenplay would make perfect narrative sense in a less violent context.) But after introducing Ballard to Helen, Cronenberg orchestrates the ensuing carnal action with a precise sense of the absurd.

The two don’t make love right away, but they do convalesce in the same hospital, which is usually reserved for airplane crash victims. When they consummate their strange attraction, it’s in the wreckage of Ballard’s car. Helen introduces Ballard to Vaughan, a scarred, obsessive weirdo who, with a cadre of stunt drivers, recreates famous car crashes — the James Dean crash, the Jayne Mansfield crash — for small audiences at clandestine gatherings in the dead of night. Through Vaughan, Ballard meets Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a flirtacious cripple whose leg braces resemble bondage gear. Of all the characters, Gabrielle is the only one who seems to have a sense of humor — especially in a scene of Cronenberg’s invention that involves an automobile showroom, a car salesman, Gabrielle’s naked thigh, and a delicate instance of penetration.

From the metal pins that intrude upon the flesh of Ballard’s lacerated leg to the steering wheel imprint Vaughan has tattooed on his chest (and the bruises he tattoos upon one of his lovers), Crash is a science fiction movie about the body’s continued assimilation of its environment in a motor culture. These are characters whose sexuality pumps through the cloverleaf veins of the big city, who have deciphered a secret code to discover a common nonverbal language that indulges, connects and fulfills them. They feel that the Toronto traffic patterns are getting heavier, that all the cars are gathering for some reason they can’t understand. If that sounds both trite and mysterious, it’s a neat expression of the human condition in the waning years of the millenium, of powerlessness and disassociation in the face of the population explosion.

Through all of this, Unger’s Catherine retains a detachment even more absolute than the occasionally bemused stare of Spader’s Ballard. I found myself wishing I had taken a closer look at all those magazines Unger has appeared in lately, to figure out how much of what I saw on-screen was her, and how much was Crash‘s version of her. In close-up, the contours of her face are as stark and angular as the internal structure of a machine. She runs both hot and cold — as a character who removes her clothes so often that it seems like a robotic functionality, Unger is fine and more than a little creepy.

Creepier is Koteas, whose Vaughan is sharply intelligent but deceptively brutish. I’m a fan of his work, but I can’t help but wonder whether the script or the characterization is at fault — I found my attention drifting exactly twice during Crash, both times during one of Vaughan’s very Cronenbergian monologues on the nature of crashes and the “project” being undertaken. Perhaps Cronenberg himself could have played the part of Vaughan, if only he cut a more imposing figure. Spader seems completely at ease among these surroundings, which is an indicator of Ballard’s sense of alienation — when you feel you’ve done it all, it makes sense that you’d be willing to try anything.

Of all the cast, only Holly Hunter seems to make a self-conscious effort at fitting in — her slightly twerpy line readings only call attention to themselves. Still, I think that everyone involved in Crash should get a trophy, since it’s heartening to see “name” actors fearlessly tackle risky material.

It remains to be seen, at this writing, whether Crash will become a flashpoint for debate in the U.S. the way it did in Great Britain, where even the London tabloids took the film to task with headlines blaring, “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film!” As might be expected, Crash can count among its critics a number of vocal blockheads — including studio honcho Ted Turner — who demonstrate only their inability to understand the concept of metaphor, or the idea that a film can investigate deviant activity without necessarily endorsing it.

And Crash is a rigorous investigation, though it’s not everything that it wants to be. It’s a little obscure, a little repetitive, and, worse, occasionally dull. But the experiment is so compelling, and the moments that work so mesmerizing, that Crash ultimately rewards the attention you give it.

In fact, Crash marks a fairly spectacular return to form for a filmmaker who seemed in recent years to become bored with his own vision. After making what may have been his closest approach to respectability with the sufficiently brilliant Dead Ringers, Cronenberg retreated into distinctive but comparably tepid adaptations of the famous work of others — in 1991, Naked Lunch‘s loose interpretation of the life of William S. Burroughs and in 1993, M. Butterfly‘s squandering of a major studio’s resources on a singular treatment of the famous gender bender that could best be described as, well, odd.

Even though Crash is another adaptation, Cronenberg and Ballard seem to be pretty much on the same wavelength. He’s returned to his conception of a sort of underground elite — the crash fetishists could be a part of some secret society encompassing a host of refugees from Cronenberg movies. More than anything he’s done since Videodrome, Crash seems to be another crucial piece of what had once seemed to be the Cronenberg project — a phantasmal, cerebral meditation on the evolution of human deviance. Since his next project is an original screenplay dealing with virtual reality, we can only hope that his project is back on track.

The true meaning of Crash is perhaps beyond words. It’s shaped, no doubt, by the viewer’s individual reaction to its erotic set pieces. Is it “sexy?” Well, sometimes. (Your mileage may vary.) Whether it’s a “cautionary tale” has been the subject of some debate. (Cronenberg now says it’s not.) It’s certainly not meant for everyone — in fact, most viewers may find it either distasteful or simply ludicrous. The final lines of dialogue, in particular, induced not-quite-appropriate gales of laughter at my screening. (It may be worth seeing in a nearly empty theater for that reason.) But this is serious over-the-top filmmaking, and the knowledge it imparts is well beyond the ken of almost anything else that passes for commercial cinema these days. If you’re willing to buckle up and take the ride, Crash is a demonstration of psychosexual decadence that Lost Highway only dreamed of, a true and troubled film noir for the end of the millenium.

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