Cronenberg’s CRASH and The Examination of Deviancy

Guest blogger Britt Hayes drops by to talk about one of Cronenberg's finest.

Welcome guest blogger and badass lady Britt Hayes! She's a writer for Reel Vixen and Brutal as Hell we're happy to have her join us today. -Meredith

The ideas of sex and death walk hand in hand, married by the notion of release and its accompanying relief. The French called the orgasm the “little death.” In that moment we are transcendent; when we become aware of and accept our sexual proclivities – or, in the case of Cronenberg’s Crash, our deviancies – we often rush to meet them, eager and reckless. When we figure out we like something, we want it all the time. Maybe we just discovered a new ethnic restaurant; maybe we’ve discovered the dangerous allure of a car crash. Over time we recalibrate and learn to embrace our desires with a modicum of restraint – everything in moderation.

But what happens when we lust after that which could kill us? Will any amount of danger, personal injury and destruction be enough to satisfy the deviant?

James Ballard (James Spader, career sexual deviant) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) are, as we’re supposed to acknowledge, sexually abnormal. They’re so perverse that an open relationship where Catherine gets fucked over the wing of a small aircraft is banal to them. They speak of their mutual infidelities in yawns. Catherine gives hand jobs with the everyday calm and near-absent attention of a conversation about the weather.

A car accident leaves James’ leg badly injured and kills the husband of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). Our first look at Helen finds her in the driver’s seat with one breast out. In Cronenberg’s bizarre version of a “meet cute,” Helen and James run into each other at the hospital while recovering, and James meets Helen’s special friend, Vaughan, a scarred and grimy Elias Koteas who gets off on reenacting the car crashes that have killed our beloved movie stars of decades past.

The people that inhabit Cronenberg’s films aren’t like people we know; they’re at the same time both tediously familiar and monstrously unknowable. They live in a world where they act out on their basest desires and say what they mean. When someone wants to have sex, they just have sex. There’s no awkward conversation or needless pandering to excessive emotional needs. A hand slides down a leg and no one makes a fuss over it. What makes Cronenberg Cronenberg is that he accepts all of the nightmare logic and gruesome body horror evinced therein, and yet it seems like a world that has some appeal - a world we still fantasize about inhabiting.

The quartet is joined by Vaughan’s wife, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a fellow car crash survivor with metal braces that look like thrift store Geiger knock-offs and a vaginal insinuation of a scar running down the back of her thigh. The group watch car crash footage; when someone pauses the television, Helen’s anxiety escapes her as if she has no control over her own voice. The crash resumes and she looks pacified and content as she simultaneously strokes Gabrielle and James.

This theme of the childlike, of something within us that cannot be reasoned with or denied – like the id, but conscious – continues throughout the film. Each time a woman on screen engages in sexual activity, she removes a single breast, like a maternal offering to the petulant sexual orphans she services. In Amazonian tradition, the women cut their right breast off (or sometimes burned it) so as to better draw the bow without limitation in battle. The act of proffering a single breast to a man in Crash reads as though Helen, Catherine and Gabrielle aren’t just nurturing these men, but engaging in acts of sexual warfare. The breast is their primal offering as they steel themselves for pain. 

Everyone in this film wants to fuck a machine or get fucked by a machine, and even better if they can get fucked by a wreck, which makes Gabrielle the ultimate instance of settling. With her braces and her scars and her crippled lilt, she’s the queen of the victim pageant. When James has sex with her, it’s the closest he can get to having sex with an accident without actually putting himself in harm’s way. You wonder if Michael Bay watches this movie and thinks, “These people just get me,” but then you realize his standards are impossibly high for someone with that hair, and he’d probably never bed an Arquette. If only Victoria’s Secret featured bionic models.

James is perhaps the most reserved of the group, sexually speaking. Vaughan is melodramatic, screwing women in the backseat of the car while James watches from the rearview. That mirror indicates James’ safe distance from the depraved. He’ll have sex in cars and he’ll even have sex with Vaughan, but there’s something conservative in his nature that keeps him from fervently embracing his desire the way Helen does.

If there is a heart at the center of every film, then Catherine is the heightened pulse of Crash – she’s a walking release of serotonin, her calm, breathy voice betraying her disaffected act. When she has sex with James, she begs him to describe his sex with Vaughan. He never responds, but she keeps asking him to describe it anyway. Her body moves in a way that’s needy and hungry; her desire is a starving child in an infomercial begging to be exploited.

Cronenberg orchestrates a slow-moving wreck throughout the film, building to the ultimate moment of impact: James runs Catherine’s car off the road, flipping her onto the side of the highway. He casually walks down to check on her, and there’s a glimmer of hope in his eyes – hope that she’ll be irrevocably damaged. When he asks if she’s all right, Catherine is sullen and responds, “I suppose so.” “Maybe next time,” James promises, as he makes love to her in the grass, her leg still stuck in the car, her forehead bloodied and sore. Catherine’s arc is perhaps the most moving – a woman who feels sad and empty, unable to forge a connection in sex. She’s not someone who’s broken, but she wants to be. To be injured in an accident would help her connect with her husband, but it might also almost make her feel something. Maybe she’ll feel alive. Maybe the scars will brand her for what she is.

Crash isn’t so much sexually deviant or explicit as it is a clinical examination of perversion. There’s nothing wrong with the perverse, and there’s nothing wrong with your desires - so long as everyone is agreeable and you’ve all set your boundaries. If you want to get physically damaged to get fucked, I wouldn’t advise it and I don’t know a doctor who’d condone it, but who am I to stand in the way of your happiness? At some point we begin to root for these characters to fulfill their desires, like cheering on a terminal child who just wants to ride a horse. Their kinks are dangerous and potentially life-threatening to themselves and to others, but if we put aside the tangible physical threat, their sexual inclinations aren’t that far removed from BDSM – consensual pain – except that here we have people who are drawn to physical wreckage, the result of an accident and the manifestation of damage. No one here feels emotionally broken or hurt, they just seem needy, seduced by the promise of pleasure born from accident. But can you plan an accident? The real tragedy here is that nothing deliberate will ever feel as good as the spontaneous, and you can’t force a disaster. 

Is the mere flirtation with death and destruction enough to satisfy this perversion, or is the ultimate release true death? Like an addict chasing their first high – in this instance, physical damage resulting from an accident – the characters in Crash are chasing a perfect storm of devastation, but minor head wounds and surface scrapes aren’t enough. In this precarious slow dance, everyone is tiptoeing around what they know will ultimately satisfy them, and that’s death. But that raises a more distressing question: how can you bask in the pleasure of an act when that act has killed you?