- YEAR: 1996
- DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
- KEY ACTORS: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Elias Koteas
- CERTIFICATE: 18
- IMDB SCORE: 6.4
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 63%
SEX SCORE: 2.5/5
❌ Not only does Crash not pass the Bechdel test, it fails it spectacularly. While there are named women in the film at no point in the entire film do any of them talk to each other. There’s not a huge amount of dialogue in Crash, so when I rewatched it with the Bechdel test in mind, I was kind of imagining there might at least be a passing conversation about Ballard between his wife and Doctor Helen that I’d forgotten, but no; not a dicky bird.
❓ But it is rewatchable? I’ve now seen Crash three times; once in 1997 when it (finally) came out in the UK, once when it was re-released on 4K in 2020, and once for this review. I think it’s an astonishing, bewildering film and I can see myself rewatching it again in future. However, it is very strong stuff, and while I can imagine watching it multiple times, there are many people out there who might not be able to stomach an entire first viewing. That’s entirely understandable – it’s creepy, the characters are on the surface unsympathetic and often repellent, and it’s all-round just very fucking weird. However, if you are a weirdo who likes weird things it may be entirely up your alley.
✔️ I did want to fuck the cast! Okay, have you seen the cast of Crash? Firstly, James Spader. If you are at all into pervy men in real life then you are in all likelihood into James Spader: I don’t make the rules. However, those of us perverts who also fancy women are extremely well- catered to by this film, which features Holly Hunter with a sleek brown bob glacially smoking cigarettes, Deborah Kara Unger bending over a railing to show off her bare arse, stockings and suspenders and, famously, Rosanna Arquette in leg braces and black leather. I am not even into women smoking or wearing leg braces except for the duration of this film! But for those 100 minutes I absolutely am. And actually, even Elias Koteas performs the role of Vaughan – easily the creepiest character in the movie – with a degree of ‘strange, perverse sensuality’ (Cronenberg’s own words) that I’m… kinda into. I’m not proud of it!
❌ But it did not inspire fantasies. Nooooo. Or… not on this viewing.
✔️ Yes, it is sex positive, almost to a fault. If we take as our definition of sex positivity as being anything that ‘affirm(s) the choices others make regarding sex, even if those choices are different from the ones we would make (as long as those choices are consensual)’ Although that said, some of the sex in Crash is a bit dodgy consent- wise: there’s one scene of open public fucking without regard for whether others on the roads have consented to seeing, and another where Vaughan and the Ballards are wandering around the scene of a multi- car pileup taking photos, posing next to injured bodies and generally being grossly intrusive. The scene is as disturbing as it sounds but the film and its director do not see fit to moralise and trust the audience to make their own decisions about that.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £0.99, buy £2.99), YouTube (from £1.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
I was so excited when the fabulous Joy Asitflies (she/her) approached me and suggested writing a guest post on the ever controversial 1996 movie, Crash. I had always intended on writing about this – completing the kinky James Spader triology with Secretary and sex, lies and videotape – but, as a self-proclaimed kinkster, Joy’s perspective so is much more astute and more interesting than anything I could have written and is exactly why I love hosting guest writers!
David Cronenberg’s Crash was, on its release in 1996, one of the most controversial films ever made. Based on JG Ballard’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ 1973 novel about car culture, technology and modernity, Crash tells the story of James Ballard (Spader), a filmmaker in an open relationship with his wife Catherine (Unger). On his way home from work one day, he swerves off the road and collides with another vehicle, killing the driver of the other car. Ballard is badly injured and hospitalised, but after a chance meeting he starts an affair with Dr Helen Remington (Hunter), his victim’s wife. She introduces him to a small circle of people who have a pronounced kink for road accidents, led by the charismatic Vaughan (Koteas), who plans and performs bloody recreations of celebrity car crashes for an audience, and Ballard and Catherine are rapidly caught up in a dangerous and addictive sexual obsession.
Despite winning a special jury prize at the Cannes film festival, the film caused a frothy moral panic – almost inevitably in retrospect – amongst Conservative MPs and cultural critics in the UK. Although the film was released in some countries in 1996, its release was delayed in the US and in the UK and the BBFC would not certify it until the following year, at which point it was banned for cinema viewing in the London Borough of Westminster. It will come as no surprise that the Daily Mail was the source of much of the most vigorous fulmination, calling for the ‘Car Crash sex film’ to be banned, with Daily Mail film critic Christopher Tookey decrying the ‘non- judgemental view of mutilation’ and Evening Standard reviewer Alexander Walker calling the film ‘deeply immoral and pornographic’, featuring a cast of characters who were ‘embodiments of human perversion’. In one of the most fabulously British lines and in a cut glass accent, Walker pronounced with disgust on the BBC’s Heart of the Matter that the film brought ‘sado- masochism onto the Public highways‘.
In 1996, the question of whether Crash was an erotic film appeared to cause a great deal of confusion. Cronenberg dismissed the question of whether Crash was pornographic by saying that ‘I’m not against pornography, in fact. So I hate being put in a position where I have to defend the film against being pornographic because the assumption has to be that if it were, that would be a bad thing’, sidestepping the question of whether Crash is indeed an erotic film, regardless of the amount of sex portrayed over its course. The general consensus was and remains that the sex in Crash is filmed in such as way as to render it deeply unerotic: ‘Cronenberg has made a film which is pornographic in form but not in result’, its sex scenes described as ‘explicit but almost comically joyless’.
And there is a huge amount of sex in the film – in just the first 6 minutes we see Unger pressing her naked tit against the cold metal of an aeroplane before being eaten out (or rimmed?) by a faceless man, James Spader eating out (or rimming?) one of his employees over an office desk, and the two of them fucking on a balcony overlooking a motorway as they post-mortem the day’s apparently quite ordinary adventures. Even viewed nearly 25 years later, it’s a stunningly uncompromising way to open a film, and it’s worth reminding anyone younger than, say, 40, that when it came out in 1996, filmed fucking was nowhere near as easily accessible as it is today. When I saw Crash as a relatively sheltered 21 year old, I did not own a home computer and was only able to access the internet in university contexts; the only way I would have seen onscreen sex would have been snatched viewings of explicit art-house films on late night Channel 4, none of which were as full- on as Crash. I am going to liberally estimate the amount of actual porn I had seen to a grand total of about eight and a half minutes’ worth of dodgy hardcore off a bootlegged VHS tape. I know! Hard to imagine. So, even though you don’t see any genitalia, those first six minutes of Crash hit like a brick.
Over the course of the film pretty much every main character fucks every other character – Spader fucks everybody, because he’s James Spader – and with the exception of the sex Ballard has with Catherine, all of the other fucking is car- based. Vaughan picks up a sex worker and they fuck in the back of his battered convertible Lincoln Continental as Ballard drives them around a sodium-lit landscape of motorways and city streets; as their vehicle glides through a roiling sea of very seminal carwash foam, Catherine Ballard has bruising, masochistic sex with the increasingly frightening Vaughan, his grease covered fists ripping at her clothes. Ballard fucks Helen in the back seat of her car after she says that her previous sexual partners were not turned on by road accidents but ‘felt like car crashes’ – a funny and flip line which reveals a brutal truth; what does it say about cishet men that sex with them could be compared to a near-death collision? And, in one of the most controversial scenes in a film jammed with them, Ballard rips open Gabrielle’s (Arquette) fishnet tights and penetrates the extremely vulval scar on her leg.
But the sex is not sexy. The actors might be hot, but the sex they have isn’t. Part of this is to do with the practicalities of it; it’s often necessarily furtive and snatched, uncomfortable – lots of grabby, breathless and sometimes comedic contortions in the back of a medium sized family car, which… we’ve all been there, amirite? But another more pressing reason why much of the sex portrayed in Crash is so unerotic is because it’s so difficult to grasp what it is about car crashes that is arousing. One of the most famous lines in the film is where Vaughan explains his thesis about why accidents are hot, saying the car crash is ‘a fertilising rather than a destructive event. A liberation of sexual energy, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that is impossible in any other form’, and it took me several viewings of the film to have anything close to an idea of what the fuck he might be on about.
And as I write all this about how generally unerotic Crash is, how opaque and barely tangible the film’s depiction of car- based fucking appears, I know that one of the reasons I was so keen to re-watch it after 23 years was that there’s one scene that stayed with me, which in retrospect encapsulates a lot of my sexuality. Ballard and Catherine are at home, in bed: as he is fucking her, she describes him fucking Vaughan. At once the most vanilla scene in a film focusing on an extremely out there kinks, it turned me on back then to the degree that I have a very clear memory of replicating it with my partner at the time when we got home – as we fucked we whispered about watching each other with people we knew. In 2020, I couldn’t even really remember the content of the scene – I just remembered how horny it made me (and how into that my partner of the time was…God bless him, he was a filthy article). Rewatching it, I was amused by how tame it seemed but overjoyed to see how closely it aligned with some of my key kinks as a 45 year old: voyeurism, dirty talk, sharing partners and being shared. Younger Me knew what she liked; Older Me wishes that she hadn’t forgotten for 20 odd years.
But it’s notable that the one scene that carried any real erotic charge for me as a viewer has nothing to do with car crashes. In his 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert points out that ‘Crash is about characters entranced by a sexual fetish that, in fact, no-one has’, and it’s this opacity that makes the film so confusing and unerotic. Cronenburg uses trope-y fetish objects – smoking, nylons and suspenders, fishnets under callipers, leather skirts – as furniture so that the viewer is tricked into thinking of car crashes as just another kink that people might have, people who are of course much weirder and perverted than the viewer themselves.
Ebert goes on to suggest to the viewer that ‘if you seek to understand them, ignore their turn ons and substitute your own’; I read a lot of articles about Crash in preparation for this article, and in all of them this is the most incisive thing anyone had to say. Ebert’s brilliant and insightful review totally changed the way I saw the film: rather than focusing on the nature of their kink – alienating to me even as an avowed kinkster – I saw a group of people who were reacting to near- death experiences by investigating their own sexuality, finding a new and intimate community of fellow freaks to explore with, and discovering new things about themselves in the process. Having been through a similar process of feeling propelled to investigate kink and BDSM for the first time in my 40s after my mother’s protracted and painful illness and eventual death, I found myself identifying with the film in a much more everyday, (literally) pedestrian manner. It became less about sex and more about trauma; how people react to it, move through it, and are transformed by it.
We don’t know what Vaughan’s history is with car crashes – we can only guess on the basis of the scars littered across his body, but we know that his fetishisation of sex and death is unhealthy to the point of suicidality and might wonder how he got to that point. Croneburg talks about Ballard having an ‘epiphany… which breaks his car, breaks his body – the nice little lines of traffic which give you the illusion of order and control are immediately destroyed in the chaos of any kind of car crash, and so suddenly you’re crossing all the lines, the cars are spinning, you don’t know what direction you’re facing in’: We do know that Ballard and Helen were bonded at the lethal moment of impact, and are at similar stages in a process of rebuilding their lives in the aftermath. Catherine has not been in a car crash herself but seems for all the world to want to, and Gabrielle is resplendent in the way she has absorbed her trauma and its resulting reshaping of her body into her experiences.
Gabrielle’s body has been reshaped by a traumatic encounter with technology and it is presented as beautiful – and as the only woman who is depicted as truly joyous in her sexuality, she is significant. She is a transformed woman with a new vulva, and this reshaping seems to give her the most undiluted pleasure of anybody in the film. She is depicted as erotic, brave and engaged with herself in a way that the other characters haven’t yet managed. Cronenburg points out that the film was seen as explicitly empowering to the disabled community – describing her as an ‘icon’, he says that ‘people who are disabled love (Gabrielle), because she’s a woman who is not sexually destroyed or disintegrated by the fact that she’s disabled. She in fact incorporates her new destroyed body into her sexuality and uses it as a kind of a new sexuality’.
While neither I nor David Cronenburg are speaking as members of the physically disabled community, and we’re going to have to take his word for that one, we can see how this view of a disabled character might be as deeply inspiring to a feminist, sex positive audience as it is deeply problematic to a sex negative one. In discussing the film on the BBC’s Heart of the Matter, Daily Mail film critic Christopher Tookey seems to believe it is a bad thing to ‘eroticise mutilation’ because it is possible that proto-perverts might see the film and decide to play Dodgem cars on the M25 in an unthinking pursuit of horny shits and giggles – a prime example of the paternalistic, sex negative mindset that ‘I wouldn’t do this, of course, but other people might and need to be protected from themselves’. This contrast of fear mongering fantasy compared to sex positive reality shows how Crash is most overtly sex positive in contrast to the voices of those who decried it.
And the weird thing is that, while it’s enormously unlikely that anyone would actually pursue a car crash kink after watching the film, those negative voices are in some way correct. The bewildering thing about Crash is that it does depict the trauma that the characters go through as liberating. Gabrielle has been transformed not destroyed, Ballard and Catherine are in the end brought closer by their experiments. Although there is unquestionably something deeply disturbing about Catherine’s apparent wish to be injured in a crash in order to fully replicate her husband and friends’ trauma journey, JG Ballard himself – the writer, not the protagonist who shares his name – says the film is ‘a love story… the story of their rediscovery of their love for each other’. The question of whether Crash is morally corrupt or not hinges on whether it is, as the conservative argument goes, immoral to depict sexual experimentation resulting from trauma as transformative to the degree that it apparently might become aspirational to the impressionable audience member, or whether the audience can be trusted to see the film for what it is; an ‘existential love story’, a film ‘about the human mind, about the way we grow enslaved by the particular things that turn us on, and forgive ourselves our trespasses’.
A deeply weird and disturbing film but, in my eyes, a brilliant one.
NEXT WEEK…an OSCARS Best Picture poll!