So warned David Cronenberg’s CAA agent when the Canadian filmmaker came to him with a 77-page screenplay adapting J. G. Ballard’s Crash. If you had read Ballard’s novel without any context or appreciation for transgressive art, you may have thought the same.
Ballard’s novel tells the story of a television producer who is sucked into a subculture of car-crash fetishists. It is full of obscene sexual content, disturbing emotional associations, and hypnotic prose that erases any polite divide between the reader and the words on the page. It is extreme content, even by Cronenberg’s own standards. During a Q&A after a screening of his adaptation of Crash at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in March 2019, Cronenberg mentioned that the novel disgusted even him; he initially stopped reading it before returning to understand why it repelled him so much. Identifying how Crash triggered the reader’s emotions as a means of exposing the emptiness of their environment was his key to adapting the novel to the screen and synthesizing it with his cinematic examination of the New Flesh. Its repellant eroticism was essential to its art.
Cronenberg’s Crash premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1996 to much controversy. The festival jury, chaired by Francis Ford Coppola, was so overwhelmed by the film’s provocative approach that they invented a Special Jury Award “for originality, for daring, and for audacity.” According to Cronenberg, Coppola was against the plaudit and at the awards ceremony, he refused to hand Cronenberg the award in a public declaration of his approval. In the wake of Cannes, Crash went through the gauntlet of cultural debates. Critics such as Roger Ebert praised the film for its challenging originality, while others such as the Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey called the film “the point at which a liberal society must draw the line.”
Ted Turner, who owned Fine Line Features, the U.S. distributor for the film, refused to release it, delaying its rollout in theaters; in the United Kingdom, conservative newspapers such as the aforementioned Daily Mail and Evening Standard campaigned to ban the film. They only managed to ban it in the London borough of Westminster, but the outcry instigated a review by the British Board of Film Classification and the Queen’s Counsel.
On the surface it’s easy to understand the controversy: Crash is graphically sexual and full of perverse imagery that even the most prurient erotic thrillers of the 1990s (such as Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct) lacked. As Adam Nayman writes in his piece for The Ringer, “Dead Man’s Curve: Cronenberg’s Crash 25 Years After Cannes:” “In the neo-Puritan context of MonicaGate, the only thing scarier to cultural gatekeepers than a movie that was too sexy was a movie filled with sex that wasn’t conventionally or marketably sexy at all.”
Throughout the film, we witness a cavalcade of sexual acts. These include racey, but relatively unfetishized, acts such as extramarital trysts at work, hospital handjobs, parking garage hookups, and liaisons with sex workers, but also more intense, taboo sex acts: sex in the wreckage of a car crash and the sexual penetration of bodily wounds. The film opens with three back-to-back sex scenes, as if challenging the viewer’s stamina for sexual imagery from the get-go. The film’s eroticism blows past whatever unwritten rules there are for sexual content on-screen. In Crash, there is no moral lesson to be learned, no permission or condemnation of the taboo content to be granted. The film simply presents its material in Cronenberg’s famously clinical manner, using the sex—and our own simultaneous attraction and repulsion to it—to dig into the emotional malaise of the late 20th century.
Crash is a culmination of Cronenberg’s sexual preoccupations on-screen, but more importantly, a distillation of his ability to weaponize erotic cinematic techniques for decidedly unerotic purposes. Crash is sexual and libidinal, but it does not operate on a purely emotional level like so much erotic entertainment. It wants to push through the initial impulses of lust or disgust to expose a more illuminating element of human psychology. It eroticizes the immaterial and the technological, and confuses easy notions of what is and is not erotic. Perhaps most importantly, it confronts the profound paralysis of Western culture at the turn of the millennium and shows how even sex can no longer offer an emotional escape in modernity.
Cronenberg has never been a stranger to controversy. Ever since his psychosexual horror film Shivers appeared in 1975 and became the highest-grossing English-language Canadian film at the time, he’s accrued the reputation of being a deviant. Martin Scorsese was famously scared to meet him in person, while critics and cultural commentators decried him as a pervert. Robert Fulford, writing under the pseudonym Marshall Delaney for Saturday Night, was so incensed by Shivers that he wrote that “it’s as if the Canada Council, wildly casting for a way to get Canadian writers working, were to invest in sadistic pornography.”
From Shivers onwards, Cronenberg garnered a reputation for sadistic titillation. Part of this was on purpose; his producer at the time, Ivan Reitman, famously pushed for softcore star Marilyn Chambers to be the lead in Cronenberg’s 1977 Shivers follow-up Rabid, knowing the actress’s draw would bring in audiences. Cronenberg wanted Sissy Spacek in the lead, but Reitman got his way and the film was a hit, surpassing even the grosses of Shivers. But Cronenberg has never been a director to callously exploit sex on-screen in a commercial manner. The sexual content of his films is always provocative, to be sure, but it’s more a means of exposing psychological and sociological elements hiding behind the dictates of polite society and good taste than a means of cheap titillation.
Cronenberg was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, a city known (in the words of C.S. Clark’s 1898 social study) as “Toronto the Good.” Toronto was a city that enforced a sanitized, Protestant purity, so Cronenberg, a young, inquisitive Jewish man, always had something to instinctually rebel against. His earliest films, including the experimental features Stereo and Crimes of the Future as well as Shivers and Rabid, explored psychosexual breakdowns against a backdrop of Canadian institutional architecture, insinuating that the oppressive buildings stood in for the strict limitations of the culture at large.
By the time the 1990s came around, Cronenberg had cemented himself as a mainstay in critical circles while managing a few commercial hits with films such as The Dead Zone and The Fly, proving that his particular brand of psychologically-inclined body horror, or “Cronenbergian” horror, had purchase with various moviegoing audiences. There were other controversies along the way, and Cronenberg made films that are arguably more transgressive than Crash (most notably his 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch), but the controversiall and confrontational nature of Cronerberg’s work peaked with Crash. The commercial climate flush with erotic thrillers made room for a film like Crash to be released, but despite the surplus of bare skin on display and attractive actors engaged in all manner of steamy on-screen antics, Crash bears little resemblance to films such as Basic Instinct or Indecent Proposal. Much of this is due to Cronenberg’s impersonal approach as a filmmaker.
Despite working primarily in the horror genre, which intends to provoke a visceral emotional response in the audience, Cronenberg’s preoccupations have always been cerebral. He’s the mad–scientist–as–filmmaker and has always maintained a clinical remove from the material on-screen in order to dispassionately observe the actions of the characters. Thus, a film like Crash uses the visual language of erotic filmmaking, but as a means to an end and as another element in the experimental examination of what makes human beings tick. In one sense, it’s an erotic thriller, as there’s an undeniably alluring element to the film’s beautiful bodies and transgressive acts. The titillation of the audience is intended, especially in the early scenes. But Crash does not stop at titillation. It pushes beyond the physical response to the material on-screen into the psychological, sociological, and even metaphysical, and to borrow a Cronenbergian phrase, evolves the viewer’s relationship to eroticism in the cinema.
In the early going, Crash resembles a conventional erotic thriller, albeit with the frequency and intensity of sexual content cranked up beyond normal levels. The three opening scenes offer an instructive template for Cronenberg’s erotic approach: in the opening shot, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky dolly and pan the camera over airplanes in a hanger, focusing on the smooth sheen of the metal and the angular designs of the planes. The camera movements lead us to Deborah Kara Unger’s Catherine Ballard straddling a plane. She pulls out her breast and rubs it against the metal of the fuselage. Already, Cronenberg is pushing the eroticism of the imagery, linking Catherine’s flesh with the cool steel of the plane—both human body and metal body are objects of erotic attention in Crash.
A man approaches Catherine from behind and caresses her breast. He pulls up her skirt to reveal nylon stockings and a girdle, conventional fetish objects, and kneels down to orally pleasure her from behind. The scene cuts to a film set, where a production assistant searches for the producer, James Spader’s James Ballard, who is inside the camera equipment room orally pleasuring an unnamed camera assistant from behind. As James hears his name from outside the door, he yells back that he’ll be out in a minute before proceeding to penetrate the woman.
The scene cuts and we are on the balcony of James and Catherine’s apartment overlooking Highway 427, one of Toronto’s busiest freeways as it leads to Toronto Pearson International Airport. The married couple discusses their respective trysts with all the passion of tired office coworkers making small talk on a Monday morning. Catherine, leaning against the railing, pulls up her skirt to reveal her bare skin and James takes her from behind. As they have sex, the camera dollies forward and tilts down over the highway until all we see are the cars passing beneath the apartment in the blue of twilight. Catherine asks James if he came with the camera assistant and he says no, and as we watch the traffic, she says, “Maybe the next one. Maybe the next one.” Again, Cronenberg is extending our erotic attention to the social and the technological. The arousal of the audience is not static; Cronenberg extends it beyond the usual erotic objects.
There is ample nudity in these opening scenes—bare breasts and buttocks—as well as a variety of sexual positions. The circumstances and locations of each sex scene—airplane hangar, camera equipment room, balcony overlooking a highway—add a transgressive element to each scene that would not be out of place in a softcore porn film. These elements place the film within a larger erotic context and prepare viewers who are able to withstand the amplitude of sexual content for further, more boundary-pushing pleasures later on.
Or so it seems. If Crash were a conventional erotic thriller, it’s likely it would simply escalate its erotic appeal along conventional grounds. But it is not conventional in the slightest and Cronenberg is more interested in manipulating the erotic interest of the viewer than in satisfying it. James promptly gets into a car accident and during his recovery falls in with Elias Koteas’ Vaughan and his group of fellow car crash enthusiasts. One of these individuals is Holly Hunter’s Dr. Helen Remington, who was involved in the same crash as James and whose husband died as a result. The other is Rosanna Arquette’s Gabrielle, who wears a dominatrix-style harness to reinforce her wounded, semi-paralyzed legs, the fusing of flesh and steel that Vaughan promises in his philosophical musings.
From here on out, the sexual content on-screen becomes truly Cronenbergian. When James is recovering in the hospital, Catherine gives him a handjob while reading the crash report. The most sensual shot is of Catherine lathering her hand in soap and slipping it under the hospital blankets, but the rest of the scene is detached and unnatural. Unger affects the throaty moistness of a phone sex operator as she reads the highly technical crash report while stroking James. When she describes the “other body and machine fluids” found inside the crashed car, James comes as a demonstration of his sexual interest shifting to the technological as much as the fleshly.
In a later scene, while Catherine and James have sex at home, Catherine questions James about Vaughan. She refers to his hulking 1961 Lincoln Continental (the car model that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in) as “a bed on wheels,” and teases James about Vaughan’s scars and sexual characteristics. As she probes further, James grows more aroused, but her language is anything but erotic. As Jessica Kiang notes in her essay for the Criterion Collection, “Even [Catherine’s] dirty talk is clinically clean: the noneuphemistic, anatomical language she uses—penis, anus, semen—has all the pornographic traction of a vacuum robot reading The Merck Manual.” Cronenberg has replaced the playful sex talk that would traditionally arouse the character (and the viewer) with antiseptic description, but such a replacement is nonintuitively essential to James’ sexual satisfaction in the moment.
The film’s confounding eroticism is best embodied in the character of Vaughan, whom Elias Koteas imbues with a sweaty excitability and danger. At the time, Koteas had already made a name for himself in Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster and Exotica, Canadian dramas with notably erotic content, so his mere casting as Vaughan already came with certain erotic associations. But Koteas doesn’t deliver a simple repetition of those past performances. He makes Vaughan a truly fascinating individual, part mad prophet, part insatiable predator. When we first meet him in the hospital, James mistakes Vaughn for a doctor due to his lab overcoat. When he looks over James’ scars from the crash, the hunger in his eyes and smile at seeing James’ scars is palpable. Later, when James and Helen attend one of Vaughan’s car crash recreations, we’re introduced to Vaughan stroking the silver metal of the car, doing to the metal car body what Cronenberg’s camera did to the metal fuselage of the planes in the opening scene. When James sees Vaughan’s binder full of black-and-white car crash photographs, he wonders if Vaughan’s some kind of pornographer. But Vaughan laughs off the suggestion. Instead, he says, he is working on “something we are all intimately involved in: the reshaping of the human body by modern technology.”
Even though Vaughan equivocates later in the film and says that such a description is sci-fi jargon, the phrase is essential to understanding Crash and its erotic imagery. To Vaughan, the car is the extension of the human body and the evolutionary means to become something more, like a version of the television signal from Videodrome. Vaughan diagnoses the dissatisfaction found in the lives of people like James and Catherine—a dissatisfaction that is apparent in the earliest moments in the film—and believes that the solution to such an atomized modern existence is to become one with the technology that provokes atomization.
Once Vaughan is introduced and James falls into his world, the filmmaking begins to exhibit Vaughan’s erotic vision of the universe. Human flesh only becomes exciting as an extension of the hard bodies of automobiles, and sexual acts obscure and disembody the humans involved in them. During a scene at the home of Vaughan’s stuntman friend, Seagrave (Peter MacNeill), he, James, Helen, Vaughan, and Gabrielle watch footage of car crash test dummies. The characters grow increasingly hot and bothered with each new crash they see on the screen. Seagrave rubs the fake breasts he’s wearing (a costume for his and Vaughan’s upcoming recreation of the fatal crash of Jayne Mansfield), while Helen pants and crosses her legs, only to leap forward in frustration when the VCR freezes and refuses to show the impact on-screen. When the tape starts playing again and she sees the promised collision, she sits back between James and Gabrielle in satisfaction and starts stroking their respective groins with her hands.
Cronenberg eroticizes the non-sexual, such as the watching of car crash footage, and visualizes the immaterial in frankly sexual terms. When Vaughan, James, and Catherine go cruising in Vaughan’s Lincoln, they come across a massive crash on the highway and slow down so that Vaughan can take photographs. Vaughan purrs like he’s in the midst of the sex act while James drives, telling him, “yes, yes, slow down, slow down, not so fast.” The clouds of exhaust and smoke and blood and spent oil on the ground resemble a post-coitus scene, and Vaughan treats them with erotic relish. When he finds the source of the crash and realizes it’s Seagrave, costumed as Jayne Mansfield, recreating the fatal crash without him, he buzzes with sexual excitement. The sight of the dead dog in the backseat of Seagrave’s car is too much for him to take and he leans against the nearby wreckage, panting and collecting his energy, as if he has spent himself in the sex act. Earlier, Vaughan claimed that the “car crash is a fertilizing rather than destructive event” and here he acts accordingly. When actual sex does occur on-screen in Crash, Cronenberg disembodies the individuals involved in the sex. The infamous sex scene between James and Gabrielle culminates with James penetrating the vulvic wound on her leg, no longer able to satisfy himself with existing sexual anatomy. Even the most transgressive viewer is likely to blanch at such action and Cronenberg knows it; the scene’s presence in the film instructs the viewer to understand that no erotic action on-screen is safe from escalation and amplification beyond even the most transgressive boundaries.
In other sex scenes, Cronenberg blurs the lines between mechanical and sexual acts. Upon leaving the aforementioned accident scene, James drives to an all-night car wash and Vaughan has violent sex with Catherine in the backseat. But before they enter the jets of water, James activates the convertible hood. As Vaughan caresses Catherine, the frame holds on them from right outside the window, watching as each part of the convertible hood comes into place and obscures the screen and the characters inside, one segment at a time. It’s as if the car has consumed Vaughan and Catherine and they’ve become another mechanical element of its frame. Later, after James consummates his homoerotic relationship with Vaughan by penetrating him anally in the Lincoln parked beneath a highway overpass, James wanders over to a nearby car wreck and gets behind the damaged steering wheel. Back in the Lincoln, Vaughan seeks to repay James the sexual favor, but by using his vehicle as an extension of his member. He rams the car wreck with James inside, each crash impact a metaphorical sexual thrust.
By this point in the film, Vaughan has blended with his Lincoln, a metaphorical fusion akin to the literal fusion of Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and the fly in The Fly. Similar to how Brundle acquires newfound potency due to the fusion, Vaughan exhibits uncontrollable urges and power while inside the Lincoln. But with Cronenberg, physical evolution coincides with moral dissolution. Just as Seth is doomed to deteriorate into the hideous Brundlefly of that film’s climax, Vaughan becomes nothing more than a predatory mechanical force stalking James and Catherine along the highways of Toronto. His predatory drive leads him to careen the Lincoln off the highway and crash into flame and death. Sex and conquest can no longer satisfy him so death becomes his only release. He has transcended eros and can now only achieve thanatos.
James inherits Vaughan’s Lincoln in the aftermath and channels his specter along the highways. He takes Vaughan’s place stalking Catherine and in the closing scene of the film, rams her car off the highway. Throughout the film, we’ve witnessed his sexual interest escalate to the point where sex itself has lost all meaning. As with Videodrome, Crash predicts the technological proliferation and escalation of sex at the turn of the millennium, most notably through the use of the internet. Through technological application, each consecutive sexual experience must be more exciting than the last. The search for further satisfaction leads to the empty binging of an addict, hollowing out the possibility and pleasure of the sex act in the first place.
The film ends with James rushing to Catherine in the aftermath of the crash and cradling her before having sex with her pinned beneath the vehicle. As he thrusts, he whispers to her, “Maybe the next one, darling. Maybe the next one.” Because he repeats the phrasing of their opening scene together, we’re cued to think about orgasm, but James has grown beyond mere physical release; he needs metaphysical release. Thus, the “next one” he mentions is death, in the hopes of following Vaughan into the ecstasy of oblivion.
There is nothing erotic about Crash’s conclusion or final emotional effect. By the time the credits roll, Cronenberg has stripped the film bare of any such pleasures, which forces us to confront the hollowness of the characters and the emptiness of their lives, driving in circles searching for an elusive release. As Kiang states in her essay, “In Cronenberg’s Crash, no one has a life story, a past, or a single recognizable emotional response. No one has much of anything, really, except for an insatiable, mechanical libido—a vestigial remnant of a vaguely remembered humanity—and a car.” The film deemphasizes character story in favor of character experience, emphasizing their pleasure and emotional responses within each scene, but it eventually strips away even that, leaving them with nothing but the void, which reflects upon the void of the world surrounding them.
Crash is ultimately prophetic in capturing the looming emptiness of technological oblivion. A scene midway through the film illuminates this prophetic nature. When Vaughan takes James to get automotive tattoos on their scars, he requests the tattooist make the tattoos dirty because “prophecy is ragged and dirty.” The tattooist responds, “‘prophetic?’ Is this personal prophecy or global prophecy?” to which Vaughan answers, “there’s no difference.” The erotic experience is the only human experience these characters have in a world with no future and no community; it is a personal escape from global reality. But the technological elements that are feeding global atomization are also capable of devolving sexuality, making it another means of growing further apart from other human beings rather than coming closer together. In Crash, sex on-screen becomes just another means of emotional dislocation and of situating the viewer in the emptiness of the present.
The fair question to ask in all this is “to what end?” If Cronenberg were a conventional horror filmmaker, the erotic manipulation and resulting emotional dislocation would be enough, but he’s never been a director to rest on simply generating an emotional response and leaving it at that. He has to situate the emotion within the larger social psychology and use it to diagnose an emotion that has global ramifications. By focusing so much on arousal, one of the most intimate emotions we feel, and then distorting that arousal, Cronenberg is capable of diagnosing the atomization of modern times and the growing detachment and emptiness of sexual coupling. He imbues the film with an existential horror that hangs over all its surface pleasures.
The film becomes an elegy for a world that has already died, leaving us with no choice but to drive out endlessly into the night, looking for the next one, the next one, but knowing the road leads back home eventually. Because there’s no outrunning yourself or the void chasing you in the rearview mirror.