Sex. The only thing that disturbs an audience more than violence is sex. Some readers might even hesitated to continue after seeing the word. Sex. Everyone has it; some are good, some are bad, some get paid, some are thieves. Yet there’s embarrassment hanging over sex, and the smattering of ways to show it in cinema is a bummer compared to the variety violence has. I love horror, and it’s a genre of violent delights and ends. But horror can also be those things for the sexy, beyond the pleasant T&A. The best change comes from within, so it’s fitting that an attempt to do more with sex in movies was from the Baron of Blood, by way of adapting CRASH.
Cronenberg wasn’t the first to tackle J.G. Ballard’s novel. Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie, too, did it in ’83 with their band, The Creatures, and “Miss the Girl.” Great song, but like all songs not by Mars Volta or Tool, it was short and sweet. The journey taken with CRASH is long and slow. Almost tantric. By design, since Cronenberg wanted his film to reflect the cold disconnect of the novel. There’s much to take away from CRASH, but one thing brought to it was controversy. England had a particular grudge against it. Or rather, the English press did. Critics were vicious towards it. The ones who bothered seeing it, anyway. Worse still, critics who hadn’t seen it were piggybacking off of those who had; making shit up to sell newspapers. For example, many were saying that it was one of the most violent movies ever made, that the characters were getting into accidents to get horned-up, that there were crashes every few minutes, and on and on. This’ll come as a surprise to Cronenberg fans, but it’s not very violent. There’s a crash with someone dying at the beginning, a crash reenactment after that, the aftermath of a brutal crash in the middle, and another fatal crash at the end. And all of them happen quick, so there’s no time to appreciate them. The characters also don’t get into accidents to get off. There’s plenty of auto erotica, but no one does their Stuntman Mike routine.
There’s a lot of fucking, though. Like, a lot a lot. France was a champion of the film, naturally. America took the “those darn arthouse kids” stance. CRASH kicks off with three sex scenes in a row before anything else happens. The first happens in a hangar with Catherine Ballard (played by Deborah Karr Unger [the role that got her THE GAME]) and a random guy. It also introduces a visual leitmotif of a woman exposing one breast. All the lady leads do it, by the film’s end, and it’s never explained why nor is it the same one. I thought it might have something to do with amazons since they had one breast, but I’m all ears if anyone has other ideas. Anywho, the next sex scene is with James Ballard (played by James Spader [awkward…])and a random woman in his office. The third is with the Ballards after they calmly compare fuck notes and find out if she came. Catherine never cums. If you watch CRASH from her perspective, it’s similar to Julia’s in HELLRAISER in that they’re both willing to go through so much for a good fuck. But it’s James’ story, ultimately.
James soon clashes with the Remingtons, sending the mister sailing to his death through one windshield into another. Helen (played by Holly Hunter [the first person cast]) is badly hurt, but still conscious, and tears her blazer open trying to get her seatbelt off. Exposing one breast. A thing I should bring up is how the film uses crashes as a kind of sexual awakening. You don’t see every one that happens to the characters, but each one is more open with their sexuality post-wreck. Not “open”… “adventurous” might be the better word. James was already open (being in an open marriage and all), but he became more daring, as we’ll see. While in the hospital, he bumps into Helen with a guy who seems as much of a patient as he is a doctor. We’ll find out tons more about Vaughn (played by Elias Koteas [Casey Jones!]), like how he’s one of two people who seek crashes. Right now, he’s just someone who’s very interested in James’ scars.
When James is well enough, he goes to the lot where what’s left of his car is, and bumps into Helen again. Things are naturally awkward, but she ends up getting a ride from him to the airport. Then she rides him at the airport. Some might say that the sex comes (heh) out of nowhere, but I think it’s obvious that James and Helen (and everyone else along the way) are connecting through trauma like only victims can. An amusing thing the costume designer, Denise Cronenberg, did was dress her like his car. Her clothes are the color of his car and her underwear’s the color of its interior. We next see James and Helen at a small gathering outside where Vaughn recreates the crash that killed James Dean as a performance art piece. Then the place gets raided and the three escape to the Seagraves’ house, where Vaughn’s driving buddy and his wife live. James also meets Gabrielle (played by Rosanna Arquette [awesome in THE DIVIDE]). She’s unique because she wears a body brace… with one breast permanently exposed. She’s also unique because of a scar, but we’ll get to that soon.
James and Vaughn start hanging out in the latter’s Lincoln convertible (the same model Kennedy was assassinated in), and pick up a prostitute. Vaughn takes her in the backseat as James drives and watches. Vaughn doesn’t fuck her; it’s more like he examines her like she’s a thing under a car’s hood. He treats Catherine similarly when they’re in the backseat while James drives through a car wash. That’s the only bit I’ll say about that, however. Not because of prudishness (ha!), but because what happens in it is a lightning rod topic (rough sex? rape?). It’s something that needs discussion but articles are, by nature, one-sided. That brings me to an interesting choice Cronenberg made in directing. He never tells you how to feel. He never says whether what’s happening is good or bad; not even with Howard Shore’s score. Neither does he give us heroes or villains. He leaves it all to us so, in that sense, CRASH is a great litmus test for the kind of sexual creature you are. Or aren’t.
Oh, Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle. Her time with James starts with a cruel game played on a car dealer. Of all the characters, she’s the only one who radiates sensuality. She’s sexy and she knows it. She’s also has a handicap which makes people uncomfortable. She knows that, too. You can sense her puckish glee as she seduces the dealer who’s not sure whether get hard or get the fuck away. She even flashes her panties as he tries to get her thigh clad fishnets and braces inside a car. When she and James fuck later (with her exposing her other breast), they take things to a new extreme. I mentioned that she had a unique scar. It’s long, on the back of a thigh, and no one would blame you for thinking that it looked kinda like a vagina. He did. She enjoyed it. A British critic said that this sex scene was particularly perverse because it showed a man having sex with a crippled woman and no one wanted to fuck those. He was very wrong. Many a handicapped person wrote him angry letters and told the media that he should be ashamed of himself for thinking that they did not, would not, could not have sex lives. Which makes me think that what could be considered perverse with these characters is really honesty. Especially since Cronenberg doesn’t tell you that they’re bad people. They’re open and satisfied with who they are, and can even have fun with it. CRASH could be seen as the most kink-positive mainstream movie in the US. Any comments about all things 50 SHADES can be taken to a domme at your nearest dungeon.
The film goes on, and the bond twixt James and Vaughn gets more intense. Vaughn calls him to watch him get a medical tattoo of a steering wheel on his chest (as awkward a date as the Mantle Twins and Claire in DEAD RINGERS). As you can tell by now, CRASH has a very interesting relationship with scars. If the car accidents could be seen as births into a new sexuality, then scars would be birthmarks. Gabrielle’s would also double as a vagina so, in a way, she’s the most feminine. Tattoos are inked scars, so Vaughn would be born again. He and James later ride in the night, park under a bridge near a junkyard, and James takes him from behind. In the novel, they did it under the influence of LSD, but Cronenberg didn’t want them or us to have a reason to excuse their homosexuality. He wanted them lucid, and the scene’s better for it. Post-coitus, James walks to the junkyard, gets into a car, and fucks the steering wheel. Vaughn gets jealous and rams the clunker before speeding away. Kink-positive, but still human.
CRASH ends with Vaughn dead and Catherine unfulfilled. He gets the death he wanted in his car, and she still hasn’t orgasmed. She was “initiated”, though. James role-plays as Vaughn in the dead man’s car and chases her in hers ’til things get out of control. He knocks her off the road, after she takes off her seatbelt, into the grass by the highway. He makes sure she’s ok, then the two fuck one last time. He whispers “maybe the next one” as he did at the start of the film, when she said that she didn’t cum at the hangar. Sex with Catherine was interesting because she never looked at the other person during it. Most of the time, she got spooned or doggied, but even the two times she faced someone, she never looked at them. She also never wore panties, so she was a strange mix of always being ready, yet never fully connecting nor hitting the higher note. She wasn’t hesitant about having sex, either. Whenever we saw the act start with her, she initiated it. Something to point out is that she cries while they’re on the grass. Not because she’s in pain, but because she’s disappointed. Like not even the crash could give her what she wanted. This is all one person’s interpretation of everything, though, and someone who’s neither the director or author. You might see a completely different film than I did, and that’s great. Art’s open to all sorts of interpretations, and Cronenberg never told us what to think.