No matter how unfilmable a literary model may seem – if David Cronenberg has fallen in love with a material, the Canadian horror auteur will also find a way to transfer the material to the screen. He proved this impressively, but not for the first time, with the difficult Don DeLillo adaptation “Cosmopolis”. He was one of the few who could cope with Stephen King’s expansive narrative rage when he adapted his “Dead Zone” in 1983. Cronenberg has also tamed William S. Burroughs’ overdone Beat manifesto “Naked Lunch,” the complicated stage-gender study “M. Butterfly” and the graphic novel “A History of Violence” for cinema. The heaviest chunk from this category, however, is his adaptation of James Graham Ballard’s gritty automotive pornography “Crash.” With a hair-raising obsession with detail, Ballard’s ’73 scandal novel explored modern man’s sexually charged relationship with his automobiles, reveling in shocking depictions of sex, splatter excesses and interpersonal coldness. In 1996, Cronenberg took up the challenge and delivered another congenial adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable material.
In the life of the advertising filmmaker Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Unger) the unbearable lightness of being has broken in. Both are young, detached and more than sexually active. Their marriage is open and they both keep telling each other about their many affairs to spice up their own sex lives. But even their supposed openness seems to have long since degenerated into an empty ritual. When Ballard is involved in a serious car accident, Pandora’s box opens for him and Catherine. Fascinated by the pain of his wounds, he plunges into an affair with Helen (Holly Hunter), who was also involved in the accident. Together, the trio, united in sexual experimentation, enters the haze of the mysterious Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who is addicted to the Eros of car accidents and celebrates orgies in crashed cars with like-minded people like the mutilated Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette). In the process, they recreate accidents of prominent victims like James Dean or Jayne Mansfield in order to climb sexual peaks in the wreckage of their fame….
In many respects, the shocking as well as erotic drama “Crash” closes a circle to the beginnings of Cronenberg’s career, who in the mid-nineties was in the process of emerging from the body horror of his early years to become an unpredictable auteur filmmaker. The automobile fetish, for example, was already a theme in one of his first directorial efforts – the ’79 racing drama “Fast Company.” This loose end is picked up again, as is Cronenberg’s fascination with the author Ballard, whose novel “The Block,” critical of civilization, he had incorporated into his early horror film “Shivers.” In “Crash”, what belongs together now comes together. Where the original, with its detailed depictions of mutilations, colorfully rolled-out traffic accidents and pornographic descriptions of completely unleashed sexuality, suggests hard-hitting imagery, Cronenberg prefers to concentrate on the coldness between the excesses.
Above all, “Crash”, like “Fight Club” made a few years later, is about modern man whose tired spirit has become alienated from his body and who wants to experience himself again in mutilation. Unlike David Fincher, who turned “Fight Club” into an exciting cinematic frenzy, Cronenberg prefers a much more undercooled staging here. As early as 1973, Ballard was extremely hard on the utopias of ’68, especially sexual liberation, and saw the coital search for self as a tiring transgression of boundaries that would end in burnout. Cronenberg’s film version is also teeming with sex scenes – and not a single one of them is arousing, rather they are irritating or even repulsive. Only during the destruction of cars and the copulation in the wrecks do the characters again experience a sufficiently strong thrill. Pain becomes the new ambrosia, charging the act, which has become boring, with offbeat appeal.
Soon, however, the coquetry is no longer enough – and the void between the excesses grows ever larger. Ballard and Cronenberg do not foresee a way out of this one-way street of divestment, nor do the sex and accident junkies themselves seem to strive for any relief from their cravings. Their destructive urges lead them straight to physical and mental ruin, and all that remains is sheer urge-drainage. Crash” was excellently received by critics at the time, and Cronenberg even bagged the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival – at the box office, however, the massively provocative film failed. Crash” didn’t bring any luck to the thoroughly fantastic actors either, if it didn’t prove to be career poison due to its uncomfortable subject matter.
James Spader as Ballard, who visibly enters a downward spiral of Eros and Thanatos, or Elias Koteas, who as Vaughan gives a guru of self-destructive eroticism – they have ruined their Hollywood careers here. Holly Hunter in particular, who had star quality at the time and tried hard for a role in Cronenberg’s film, played herself into obscurity here despite terrific work. She is also joined by Rosanna Arquette who shines as Crash junkie Gabrielle with an iconic and clearly ambiguous looking scar. “Crash” may have set back many a career, but equally all involved can be proud of their courage. After all, it sowed the seeds for films like “Drive” or “Shame”: like Cronenberg, Refn stylizes the automobile as the object of lust for emotionally dead drifters; like Cronenberg, McQueen also coolly tells of terminal sexual exhaustion. Both have learned a lot from him – but they have by no means surpassed him.
Conclusion: Even in David Cronenberg’s demanding filmography, the gem “Crash” sits between all chairs – those who want to dare a confrontation with the darkest sides of human sexual life will get the opportunity from the risk-taking Canadian here.