Amongst the extras on this new Arrow Video’s 4K restoration Blu-ray edition of Crash, an archive interview with star James Spader sees him answer the question, “What is CRASH about?” The reply isn’t the in-depth intellectual one you expect after having watched the film. “It’s about sex and car crashes,” says Spader and, although he elaborates a little, he’s not wrong. David Cronenberg’s Crash is indeed about sex and car crashes.
A married couple in an open relationship, James and Catherine Ballard, (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) seem to be in search of something to replace the lack of intimacy in their lives. Sex is their preferred method of communication as well as their hobby, whether with each other or with others. But it isn’t love. After he’s involved in a serious car accident in which Holly Hunter is involved, he becomes exposed and drawn to a group of people, led by the charismatically attractive and dangerous Elias Koteas, who find that the eroticism they seek can only be found in the interplay between people and cars, with car crashes acting like the ultimate climax. As the thrill of ever more dangerous situations is sought, Catherine becomes involved in her husband’s new ‘kink’, but will it bring them closer together or kill them?
Crash caused a huge stir when it was released. It was condemned as immoral, depraved, described as pornographic, had censors and councils shaking in their board rooms and was even banned in some parts of the world. People all over who hadn’t seen the film were outraged, boosting the film’s notoriety and box office. Twenty four years on, is Crash still so shocking?
Never intended or designed to titillate, Crash offers a deep dive into a world of sexual cultism, dangerous eroticism and extreme fetishisation, in a brilliant adaptation of a novel that is as cold as an unheated leather passenger seat in winter. As you’d expect from Cronenberg, his exploration of a particular sexuality doesn’t rely on sensationalism and holds back on emotion. Cronenberg is the observer rather than the commentator. He doesn’t celebrate, doesn’t condemn, he just shows it.
Consequently, the film itself is also a cold affair; cerebral and detached, and you watch it absorbed and fascinated, but not particularly moved.
Cronenberg’s direction is immaculate. Everything, every shot, scene, situation, contributes to sex, cars, and crashing; there is nothing more. The performances are superb, oddly distant but absolutely perfect and even brave, the actors throwing themselves fully into scenes of sex straight, gay, disabled, and automotive.
There’s no denying that the film has its horny moments, but not in the traditional sense, as if we too are beginning to get involved in the bizarre cult we’re witnessing (there’s a pretty racy car wash scene that gets the pulse racing even if the car is moving slowly). And it’s interesting that in most of the sex scenes the characters face away from each other so that there’s a distinct lack of kissing or eye contact, the things that might suggest intimate connections. As an audience, we can’t take Crash from behind – it’s a full frontal experience, and yet Cronenberg still manages to keep his feet on the brakes, ensuring that we leave any sense of intimacy outside on the drive.
The disc comes with a splendid array of extras, including the already mentioned archive interviews, some new interviews including with producer Jeremy Thomas, Howard Shore (his score is brilliant), and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, a 1996 Q&A with Cronenberg and J.G. Ballard, and a wonderful TIFF conversation from last year with Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. A new commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin can’t live up to a longed-for Cronenberg one, but there are several short films as well, including two by the director himself.
All in all, it’s enough to take you over the limit!