I somehow find myself driving again.
Writer/director David Cronenberg opens his J.G. Ballard adaptation Crash with a sex-crazed couple engaging in the act with people other than their partner before meeting back home to share their extra-marital affairs and ultimately arouse themselves yet again to finish the job their flings couldn’t. They get off on talking about the act, but the real impactful details are the ones where they explain how easy it would have been for them to get caught. That danger sets them off more than a desire for sex since the experience itself has become bigger than orgasm. They’ve moved past traditional ideas of intercourse like addicts chasing a high that’s become almost impossible to achieve. It shouldn’t therefore come as a surprise when ultimate pleasure arrives via a car crash.
The crunching of steel and violent, physical contact twisting two bodies together into one mass of destruction is part of the allure, but there’s also that euphoric sense of losing control. Getting off on the idea of someone catching them in flagrante still brings with it an awareness that pure chaos rejects. James (James Spader) and Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger) were creating their own crashes by their semi-public episodes with strangers to use the ensuing excitement later with each other. To therefore substitute in a traffic collision wherein escape means life rather than mere decorum is to turn the dial from a nine straight past ten to infinity. Surviving becomes the ultimate rush and scars a badge of honor doubling as aphrodisiac—adrenaline and oxytocin made visible.
Moving from sex addiction to symphorophilia (being aroused by watching disasters as coined by John Money) isn’t something that happens overnight, though. They need a guide to begin understanding the strange feelings that surround what happened. Theirs is Dr. Robert Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a scientist turned car crash connoisseur who spends his nights driving around with a police scanner to take photographs of any wreck close enough to visit before the police tape off the area. He also stages historical accidents with a stunt driver/kindred spirit (Peter MacNeill‘s Seagrave) that other symphorophiliacs can watch. Vaughan is the authority on this phenomenon and sees a new disciple in James. He takes him under his wing to help in his pursuit of “reshaping the human body by modern technology.”
If that sentiment doesn’t scream David Cronenberg, I don’t know what does. Where he would pursue such a quest three years later with eXistenZ, however, he takes a step back on the literal proliferation of those words here. Dismissed by Vaughan as an out-there science fiction conceit to weed out the true believers amongst the simply curious, this journey is more about approaching the nexus point where sexual pleasure and car crash bloodshed meet. That means a steady escalation of violence and risk amongst his ragtag band of sycophants like Seagrave, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter)—a passenger in the car James hit to throw him and Catherine down this rabbit hole. Sex in cars. Sex in-motion. Sex post-collision. Arousal by unmitigated carnage.
Crash is kind of an origin story as a result. There’s no real plot or antagonistic force beyond the characters’ own flirtations with death in pursuit of their latest fix. The film is truly just a curtain pull onto a world of sexual deviancy wherein pleasure is derived by a crime placing others in peril. No one talks about this reality, though, since the dead are thought of as martyrs rather than victims. They perish so the survivors can be awakened. And we see this through James’ initial crash. He’s barely conscious when glimpsing the body of the driver he hit laying in his passenger seat. James the rookie then gazes out his windshield at Helen the seasoned veteran ripping open her blouse right before Cronenberg cuts away.
From there it’s just a matter of time before tragedy strikes again, but you can’t really call it tragedy when people like Vaughan are intentionally seeking the ultimate release. Do they have a death wish? Not quite. But none of what they’re doing matters if the potential for death isn’t present. You can’t fake this stuff. You must instill enough fear to find the stimulation necessary for whatever orgiastic payoff rears its head. And that’s why Catherine becomes such an intriguing part of the puzzle. She hasn’t been in a crash, but her unfiltered sexual instincts and desires are so transparently aligned with James that his description of what occurred gets her wanting to taste that same high. She wants into their exclusive club—scars and all.
Call it a glorification of extreme sex and violence (one scene leaves Catherine covered in bruises as James touches and kisses each before the two conjoin) if you want. Many did with controversy following the NC-17 picture (despite the f-word only being used five times and the nudity proving quite tame by today’s standards) everywhere it went thanks to governments and public interest groups believing it would inspire copycats and a rise in vehicular manslaughter. Or you can call it a cautionary tale (as Jean Baudrillard did when describing Ballard’s original novel) due to its extremes being a prescient commentary on where society was headed courtesy of increased technological advancements and shifts in stimuli. Either way, it’s a singular vision made more impressive by its release in 1996.
It obviously won’t be for everyone, but that truth goes beyond subject matter as Cronenberg’s stylistic flourishes can make the finished film difficult to embrace. The acting is often stoic and emotionless to ensure the sex and car crashes standout as these characters’ only outlet for pleasure. The camera is too with slow pans providing an almost clinical visual dissection of scenes, lending a pornographic lens to the whole that ensures we have nothing else to look at but metal and flesh meeting for orgasmic release. Less a movie to enjoy than appreciate, Crash finds itself leading audiences towards an ending that’s as anticlimactic as it is perfectly suited to revealing how this is one habit you cannot kick. The promise of euphoria is simply too strong.