By Federico Sierra
Catherine Ballard has sex with her flying instructor. James Ballard has sex with his camera operator. Catherine and James then come home to have sex with each other. They’re a married couple in an open relationship, and describing their affairs and fantasies while they are having sex is the pinnacle of their intimacy.
Crash opens with three back-to-back sex scenes that establish the erotic tone of the movie, as well as the relationship between the protagonists. They don’t seek romantic fulfillment. They are the embodiment of the Freudian theory that every human interaction is just an opportunity to satisfy their sexual desires. It’s the antithesis of the conventional love story; here characters are just looking out after their own sexual cravings and leaving their personal emotions out of any interaction.
Based on the 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard, the plot follows James and Catherine as they are introduced to Vaughan, the leader of a subculture of individuals who are sexually aroused by car crashes. For them, sex has become a mundane habit, so they seek new thrills in order to feel alive. Vaughan’s philosophy that “the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy with an intensity that’s impossible in any other form” seduces the Ballards into this extreme form of fetishism.
As the title suggests, car crashes are a symbolic element of the movie. The image of a car colliding into another serves as a strong metaphor for the characters’ fleeting desire for a meaningful experience. But this image also represents the self-destructive implications of this addiction: the more they give in, the closer they are to death.
The movie is directed by the unconventional mind of David Cronenberg, a Canadian filmmaker who defies every expectation of what a movie should and should not be. His movies creep under your skin and keep you away from your comfort zone well after the credits roll. His style is the complete opposite of appealing. He doesn’t care whether his audiences love or hate him, for all that matters is the psychology that drives the actions of his characters.
What’s interesting about Crash is how deep Cronenberg explores his characters’ psyche without manipulative sensationalism. The plot runs with no emotional anchor nor sympathetic character, yet scenes unfold with a touch of surrealism that one can’t help but wonder where it’s leading to. The movie is presented with a detached perspective that doesn’t tell us what to feel or think. Crash’s cold gaze simulates the emotional dryness that overrules the Ballard’s inability to create a meaningful relationship.
Despite the plot following the Ballards’ relationship and their struggles, the most interesting character in the whole movie is Vaughan, a scarred alpha male with a nihilistic obsession to car accidents. Played by Canadian actor Elias Koteas, there’s not an inch of charm in his character. His project is to “reshape the human body by modern technology,” implies that the scars on his face and body are the product of a masochistic death-wish. Yet, Koteas’ character delivers his lines in such a nonchalant and emotionless manner that easily seduces his followers into his own perversions, ignoring that innocent lives are at stake. It’s this compulsive self-indulgence in personal cravings that envelops the characters of the movie, they will get what they need, or die trying.
These mechanical urges of the protagonists are accentuated by the soundtrack, which is primarily composed by a combination of electric guitars and chilling violins to accentuate. The soundtrack of the movie was composed by Canadian Howard Shore, who also wrote the music for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as most of Cronenberg’s movies.
Despite the controversy it stirred upon its release in 1996 and being banned from pivotal movie-centric arenas like the U.K., Crash earned the unusual Special Jury Prize, an award given only at the request of the official jury, at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival “for originality, for daring and for audacity”, according to The New York Times.
David Cronenberg is one of Canada’s leading filmmakers. His movies have earned a place in the history of cinema for their twisted premises and transfixing horror. Crash is not the ideal starting point to understanding Cronenberg’s style due to its sadistic, almost abstract, storyline. I would recommend beginning with more appealing movies like The Fly or The Dead Zone.
Crash has the power to challenge the audience by delivering a non-conventional piece. The film is a philosophical riddle that’s designed to make us think rather than feel, and the methodic cold gaze with which it explores its characters allows us to judge them solely on their actions and not on their likeability.