Crash (1996) may not be David Cronenberg’s most perfect film, but re-watching it this past weekend it strikes me as upsetting and strange even by the standards of his own work—and that’s saying something, considering that Cronenberg is the man behind such mind-fucks as Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and The Brood.  Cronenberg’s perversity cannot be limited to a single genre or type of material; while he is often said to explore “body horror,” only two or three of his films could properly be called horror movies.  Others are better classified as science fiction, crime thrillers, or psychological dramas.  The one thing they all share is Cronenberg’s uncompromising vision, a determination to probe his subjects, literally and figuratively, past the point of their (and our) comfort. 
Cronenbergs work combines the intellectual curiosity of a scientist with the creative curiosity of an artist.  Crash, a film about a subculture of kinksters for whom cars and car accidents serve as a sexual fetish, has a clinical, detached tone at the same time that it is powerfully erotic, even for those viewers who may not share the characters’ highly specialized proclivities.  The steel-gray world of the film is both cold and sensuous, and its hard, metallic textures, like its characters’ beautiful, scarred bodies, are both attractive and repulsive.             

To watch Crash now is to be reminded of the firestorm of controversy over sexually explicit films that played out over the course of the 1990s.  1990 saw the creation of the now-defunct NC-17 rating with which a number of independent and art-house films, Crash included, were slapped.  Crash appeared in the wake of New Queer Cinema, after indies like Todd Haynes’ Poison had inspired the wrath of the right wing but before Ellen DeGeneres made it okay to be gay on primetime TV.  Crash was (and is) defiantly, scarily queer in rejecting conventional ideas not only about sex (nearly all of its characters are bi- or pan-sexual) but also about bodies and bodily harm.  Like, say, Gun Crazy and In the Realm of the Senses, Crash takes place within a closed world of erotic obsession in which the characters remain confined, blindly pursuing their desires without so much as a thought for anyone outside that world.  As if inspired by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), their bodies have become post-human objects, fusions of metal, leather, and scarred flesh.  Cars function as outer layers of artificial skin, shells to be stroked and penetrated.  For Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), the ultimate expression of her husband’s love would be for him to kill her with his car. Most shockingly, Cronenberg resists the impulse to judge or pathologize.  His approach is rather to regard, complicate, and challenge.

Twenty years on, Crashs ideas retain an unnerving power.  In the time since I first saw it, certain moments have come to feel like fragments of a half-remembered dream.  Was that really there in the film, I’ve wondered, or did I imagine it?  It’s all really there, as it turns out.  But even while the film is playing it seems, somehow, not to be happening.  This may have to do with the restraint and discretion of its actors and settings, which could be described as stereotypically Canadian.  The violent impulses of the characters roil beneath quiet, soft, unassuming personae.  Even their dirty talk sounds prim and clinical.  Yet they are consumed with a sexual desire that they are compelled to pursue unto death.  Even after we leave the world of this film  we may find that its sexual charge has burrowed its way under our skin.


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