David Cronenberg's "Crash" hypnotically explores the intersection between sex and death.

Published April 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

David Cronenberg's "Crash" is one of the dirtiest movies you'll ever see -- steamy, naughty, stuck through with bruised thighs, sleek chrome, the warm glow of ambulance lights. Not to mention very real sexual elements, such as semen, that are usually hidden from the camera. (No frontal male nudity, alas, but "Crash" does go all-out for its NC-17 rating.) The astonishing thing, however, is how pleasantly hypnotic the film is -- despite the fact that its subject is confined to peculiarly gruesome sex.

At least on the surface "Crash" is gruesome.

As you've probably heard, given the year-long controversy surrounding it (a hit at Cannes, banned until recently in England, its release in the U.S. initially delayed by Ted Turner), the story's about a group of people who are turned on by car crashes.That may seem shocking, and it is. (I haven't even mentioned the scene in which one character sexually penetrates the vulva-like scar of another.) But given its premise, the film is astoundingly free of either horror or repulsiveness, unless you count your own surprise at readily jumping on its characters' wavelength.

It's easy to see why Cronenberg, given his fascination with bodily functions, was attracted to this story, based on a book by J.G. Ballard. One of Ballard's creations is a leather-jacketed, raggedy-scarred photographer named Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who drives a funereal 1963 black Lincoln convertible. Vaughan's hobby is re-creating the fatal crashes of such stars as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. A kind of angel of death, he walks into the lives of a couple, Catherine and James Ballard (Deborah Unger and James Spader), and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) when James Ballard's car crashes into Remington's, killing her husband and putting both survivors in the hospital with devastating injuries.

We know Catherine and James, a film director, are no sexual naifs because we've seen each of them tryst with others and then compare notes at the end of the day. Likewise, our first sight of Helen is when she flashes a breast just seconds after the collision in which her husband's body flies through the windshield of James' car. These people are weird, all right, but nothing quite prepares us for the journey they embark on together. They're like dream characters, meaningless on their own, but part of the fabric of a single, powerful, collective subconscious.

No sooner are Helen and James both out of the hospital than they show up together at a late-night show staged by Vaughan in which stunt men re-create the Dean crash with real cars. This incident is the first pulse of emotion in a story driven by moments of odd sympathy for people in seemingly repulsive situations. It somehow makes sense that Helen and James, having barely escaped one near-fatal crash, are drawn to the spectacle of another. We may be uneasy, but at the visceral level, we understand it.

We also understand why Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) -- a crash survivor and Vaughan groupie whose leg braces only improve her get-up of fish-net stockings and black lace -- drives a car salesman wild when her brace tears the leather of a car seat. And just when it seems like the only thing that could improve the film would be a gay sex scene, James and Vaughan find each other in the back of the Lincoln. Then, Catherine puts her bare nipple on a cold metal surface and ... well, you get my point.

With "Crash," Cronenberg has created a mood film about eroticism, one that's decorated in the purple and mauve shades of corpses. It's a film noir in bruise tones, a place where a car wash is the most erotic scene on earth.

But the film doesn't stop at making facile observations about the intersections of sex and death or automobile chrome and American movies. It draws on these things, along with voyeurism, fetishism and our Hollywood-seeded love affair with violence. Then "Crash" goes somewhere else entirely.

If anything, it takes us down the lost highway of forbidden emotion and sensuality that eluded David Lynch in his most recent film, "Lost Highway," and that eludes most American films with their fixation on adolescent sexuality. Cronenberg's characters exist in their own closed universe, a place where every object and every opportunity is sexual. Occasionally, this universe has quirks that aren't entirely sexual -- as when James keeps insisting there are "more cars" on the road than there were before his accident. But what it hasn't got -- and this is what's liberating -- is a judgmental point of view. The film's sensibility is neither moral nor immoral.

It just is.

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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