Still licking it’s wounds after assorted fierce maulings on the grounds of taste and decency, Crash – David Cronenberg’s oft delayed auto-erotic sex-fest – at last gets to burn rubber on these shores. Ever since its unveiling at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it blagged the Special Jury Prize), the film – a powerful study of the extremes of sexual obsession – has been buffeted by storms of controversy. Now it’s been given the official nod, with no cuts and an 18 certificate, by the good guardians at the BBFC, we’ll finally be allowed to judge for ourselves.
So was it worth all the hooh-hah? Well, in a word, no. Many will doubtless be offended by its kinkier sex scenes, but suggestions that the film might corrupt are plain laughable – it’s about people who get turned on by car crashes, for Dickens sake. How unsexy can you get? That the film is often uncomfortable to watch is part of the point – by making the sexual fetish these characters share so unerotic and offputting, it allows us to dispassionately examine how we let what turns us on to rule our own lives. This is clever stuff, but it brings with it a danger – you could easily find yourself caring so little about these characters and their concerns that you lose interest in the film completely.
Filmed in a lifeless, greying Toronto, Cronenberg locates Crash so far outside of normal reality that none of it seems real, or even remotely threatening. The people we’re supposed to identify with – the cold, detached, sexually liberal marriage of James Spader and Deborah Unger – are weird enough from the outset, but the auto fetish group that they then become ensnarled in is odd beyond belief. There’s Holly Hunter, whose initial collision with Spader’s car (her male companion dies, and she and Spader later meet cute on a hospital ward, and again at the car pound) neatly sets off a bizarre chain of events. There’s Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a photographer who specialises in recreating celebrity car crashes, and girlfriend Rosanna Arquette, who hobbles about with braces strapped to her legs. Vaughan, who’s clearly a few gallons short of a full tank, swiftly draws our heroes into his erotic obsession with road accidents, and soon all five of them are heading for disaster – with regular sexual couplings (every one conceivable is tried, including homosexual) along the road to sexual deviancy.
Yes, Crash is an original film, and brave with it. As with many of Cronenberg’s previous road trips into unmapped territory (Dead Ringers, Videodrome and the like), it works well as a purely visceral experience – it’s packed with disturbing images, though you may not be quite sure what they’re all meant to mean – and there’s clearly a fierce intelligence at work. By removing anything that 99 per cent of the audience members could possibly find erotic from the equation, the ludicrousness of our own sexual obsessions and compulsions are laid bare – these people are driven by fascination and lust, and the fact that they can get away with what they’re doing. They’re like drug abusers or gamblers – they know intellectually they should not be doing what they’re doing, but they’re already too far gone to care. Crash may not be to your liking, but it is clear that it’s well-made. And rather than encourage the population to go jumping into their cars to cause a pile-up on the M1, it may be the best advert for seat belts yet.
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An icy, clinical exploration of sexual deviancy, Crash is Cronenberg's most controversial flick yet. But it is watchable and intelligent, as well as uncomfortable to sit though and often puzzling. It's more enigmatic than erotic, and not nearly as depraved as you - or some of the nation's moral guardians might think.