With erotica comes danger, the danger of cheapening something basic and beautiful. David Cronenberg, however, is a trained hand at maneuvering difficult narratives so that they become more engaging without losing their almost-harsh edge. And with the highly controversial 1996 movie Crash, he does the same. He takes a charming lead in James Spader who is film producer James Ballard in the movie. James has an open marriage with his wife Catharine. Their sexual life is joyless and the only way they induce some form of excitement into their marriage is by recounting their many affairs to each other.
To say that theirs is an unconventional relationship would be an understatement. But what happens next is definitely more taboo. First James, and then his wife Catharine, begin to fetishize death (more pointedly, car crashes) after James becomes involved in a particularly violent car accident that kills the passenger in the other vehicle. Needless to add, there are multiple sex scenes in Crash, most of them provoked by a sense of an impending danger. It is all bizarre and disturbing at the surface level, but on a deeper study, it can perhaps be comprehended to some extent why a couple would indulge in these acts. Because at the very basic level, a human being is an animal, and there is always a primal urge to kill, wound or make a celebration out of this violence that the director explores. The basic instinct, as they call it.
Plus, the relationship between sex and death is an old one, which scholars have often pointed out in Shakespearean poetry as well. It has been quoted in several critical articles that on numerous occasions, Shakespeare and other 16th century poets and writers would use the phrase ‘to die’ in order to allude to sex, or more specifically, an orgasm.
However, despite Crash’s challenging and courageous subject, director Cronenberg sometimes loses sight of the goal and prolongs a titillating sequence to heighten that kind of awareness in his audience. This tactic especially backfires in the second half of the movie. Crash, running at 100 minutes, could have still been tighter. The camera lingers too long where it shouldn’t. But Spader, who is basically shouldering most of the burden, is fantastic as the lead. He appears magnetic, sensible, lunatic and dangerous at different points in the movie. A complete complex whole as human beings are when stripped of their superficial sophistication.
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Crash won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes back in 1996, but as the story goes, director Francis Ford Coppola was so repulsed by what he had seen in Crash, that he did not want to hand over the award to Cronenberg personally. There were campaigns in the UK to ban its release. In fact, the negative response was so enormous that later the filmmaker confessed the heat against it really took him by surprise. “I really did find the response to my film [in the UK] to be a kind of strange island response. There’s a siege mentality in England, I think, and a fear of being contaminated… I’ve had reactions from about 40 countries, and nothing approaching the craziness I found in England,” he said. However, a couple of critics have found more logical ground to dismiss the overly done sex scenes which are seen as a direct result of violent accidents in the movie. Daily Mail journalist Christopher Tookey had once stated, countering Cronenberg’s defense of the erotica, saying that while those scenes are consensual themselves, the car crashes in which bystanders or innocent passengers get killed, are not.