Film Scouts Reviews


by Harlan Jacobson

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May 19, 1996

Well, I saw it, today. I saw Canadian director David Cronenberg's "Crash", the most hotly awaited film in competition at the 49th Cannes film Festival. Cronenberg has, what was described here in the press conference, as the "most twisted brain in cinema," with such films to his credit as "Videodrome", the remake of "The Fly", "Scanners", "Dead Ringers" and William S. Burroughs "Naked Lunch". This time he has adapted a novel by JG Ballard, who was here in Cannes to pronounce Cronenberg's adaptation as one of the greatest films on sex and violence I've ever seen."

The novelist surely had heard the thwacking of seats as people fled the Salon Lumiere in the Grand Palais. This being Cannes, he may have heard the cell phone ring and the tittering of the audience in the middle of the film's one homoerotic scene in a Lincoln Continental picked up cheap from the propmaster on "The Road Warrior". Surely he heard the boos that sounded like a herd of thundering cattle at the screening's end.

"Crash" opens with Deborah Unger leaning up in full garter regalia, nipple against the nose of a private plane, as she is taken by a lover. Cut to the set of a TV commercial, where her husband, played by James Spader, is enjoying the camera girl in a closed room. Cut to James taking Deborah on their high rise balcony, both facing Toronto's 401 Expressway, and you begin noticing that no one in this film has sex facing each other.

The film clicks into gear only when Spader, who won best actor here in 1989's "sex lies and videotape", veers into oncoming traffic and collides with a car driven by Holly Hunter, who won best actress in 1992 for "The Piano". Spader meets Hunter's husband when he comes hurtling through his windshield to land, DOA, in his passenger seat. It's the very act of crashing into one another that sends all the characters in this film into a world of ritualized, sexual frenzy, when they are not floating through a world reminiscent of George Carpenter's "Night of the Living Dead" series, which director Cronenberg drives completely over the cliff. Once hit, these people are permanently damaged, permanently damned. They become ghouls on wheels.

First stop is an evening of car crash performance art, orchestrated by Elias Koteas ("Exotica"), who is recreating the fatal 1955 crash of James Dean with student Donald Turnupseed. This takes place to the appreciative applause of fellow crash victims, until the show gets busted up, as it were, by the cops, sending everyone into the woods.

Koteas, we learn, lives in his car, but reconstructs famous moments in car crash history in a workshop. In fact, he's planning the Jayne Mansfield crash, in which Jayne lost both her dog and her head. Enter Rosanna Arquette in a leather and steel body brace over her black lace body suit, as a kind of Koteas groupie... She's a fine example of the bone breakages, bruises and lacerations that become the erotic cue for the denatured sex in a post-reproductive world. Sex isn't a scene between two characters in "Crash." Sex is the movie in "Crash", because sex and crashes are linked as inextricably in Cronenberg's world as flowers and blushes were in Jane Austen's.

If you get the idea that "Crash" pursues such Cronenberg's themes as the elasticity of identity, the allure of metal and machinery, or the shift in values and meanings as we hurtle toward the end of the millennium, well I guess you could say that... It certainly is the dark side of all those TV commercials in which high-heeled babes stroke a shiny new paint job and beckon you to the open road. Sex and death lie around every twist and turn here, and with them Cronenberg has released something unseen and inadmissible into the marketplace: a private erotic dreamscape about the effect of impact on deadened senses, about the eroticism and aesthetics of truly fatal attractions.

I can't say you need to see Crash when it comes out this summer, but I can hear the voices clamoring to restrict access to it, because if we let everyone see it, people will obviously start driving badly...

One odd and completely coincidental note: Worming my way into the packed Cronenberg press conference here in Cannes, I slid into the last seat left in the hall. That's when a woman came over to me and pointed to her badly sprained, bruised, purple ankle. "I really need the seat," she said. " I am the wife of the author. I am JG Ballard's wife."

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