Sex Scenes: Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’ Is The Most Sexual Movie of All Time
The 1996 film’s preoccupation with sex and car crashes poses bold, Baudrillardian questions about the nature of sexuality itself.
Crash, the 1996 Cronenberg film (not to be confused with the 2004 movie of the same title) might be the most sexual major motion picture of all time. Rated NC17, and based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, the movie is about a group of pansexual deviants who get off on car crashes.
At the time, the film proved to be hugely controversial; in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail started a campaign for its censorship along with public officials who hadn’t seen the movie, which resulted in the movies being banned in West London and receiving only limited theatrical distribution. Those defending the film argued the it was not pornographic or even that sexual. It was about technology, they said. Roger Ebert (the man who gave the abysmal 2004 Crash 4/4, the two movies should not be confused) even defended the film, saying that it was “like a porno movie made by a computer,” noting he didn’t “like” it but “admired” it.
But what’s not to like? James Spader (whose character is named James Ballard, after the author) is a young and horny TV producer in a very sexually liberated relationship with his glamorous wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger.) In the film’s first scenes we see Catherine pressed against an airplane having sex with a stranger; meanwhile her husband is eating ass in a supply closet at work. Afterward, the couple tell each other about these dalliances. “Did you come?” they each ask. “Maybe next time,” coos Catherine.
The action begins shortly after, when Spader’s character, on his way to the airport, is involved in a horrifying car crash, a head-on collision with another car, whose driver will be ejected from the windshield and die. The car’s passenger, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) will end up in the same hospital as Spader, in an eerie, mostly empty wing, usually saved for victims of plane crashes. (The adage that you’re more likely to die on the way to the airport rather than in the plane comes to mind.)
The sexual fascination with car crashes begins at the hospital, when James’ wife comes to visit and masturbates him while describing the details of the crash he was in. Shortly after, he will bond with Helen about their crash, and then meet Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a mysterious figure covered in scars, who is the ringleader of a group of sexual fetishists devoted to reproducing celebrity car crashes, with a comedic degree of authenticity. During an illegal street reenactment of the James Dean crash, Vaughan says: “You’ll notice that we are not wearing helmets or safety padding of any kind, our cars are not equipped with roll cages or seat belts, we rely solely on the skill of our drivers for our safety, so that we can bring you the ultimate in authenticity.”
Crash is generally understood as a movie about paraphilia, the experience of intense sexual arousal by an unusual object—in this case, car crashes. But it is not a psychological movie, a movie concerned with exploring the inner lives of the protagonists; rather, it is an anthropological one, one that is interested in the human animal, in its biology and the relation of this with culture and technology (technology being “an extension of the body”).
According to postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in what is the most influential essay on Crash, it is the evolved functional capacity of a human organism which allows it both to rival nature and to triumphantly remold it in its own image. Humans are lacking animals (naked, weak, slow) who through technology have been capable of overcoming their fragility and taking control of nature.
Crash starts by seemingly espousing the Freudian trauma theory to explain paraphilia, wherein a traumatic event in our personal history leads the individual to obsess over the event and invest it with erotic meaning. The event is so shocking and electrifying for the fetishist, that they will be unable to find satisfaction in anything but its repetition. The child who is caught masturbating will become an exhibitionist, and James will now compulsively try to get into car accidents for his erotic gratification.
But this account, in Crash, is immediately criticized by the figure of Vaughan, who is not interested in the repetition of his own accident, but in repeating historic celebrity car accidents. Freud wanted to explain our fantasies and desires through a biographical narration, but Crash wonders what happens to that theory when our desires can be influenced at a distance through media images, so that innumerable more people may be more invested, say, in the trauma of Lady Di’s death than in many of the little misfortunes of their real lives.
In Crash, two things happen; people either drive or have sex. And while they drive and have sex they talk, narrate stories, and explain concepts. Catherine, James’s wife, is the film’s master of erotic storytelling. While her husband fucks her, she goes into minute detail about Vaughan, asking if he thinks that Vaughan fucks a lot of women in that huge car of his: it’s like a bed on wheels, she says, it must smell like semen. “It does” James responds. “Have you seen his penis?” “I think it’s badly scarred,” James moans. “Can you imagine his anus? Describe it to me.”
Catherine creates the fantasy and later James and Vaughan will hook up in his car after getting tattooed together. But a narration is not necessary; anything can be sexy, and anything can be sex, all you need is proximity and analogy to engender a fantasy. A sensual voice can make anything sexual, like when Catherine tells James of his destroyed car as she’s giving him a handjob. Sex and car crashes are paired and shown in their similarities; the violent coming together of bodies being similar to a crash, a tongue moving on a body is compared to a car wash, and a driver flying from one car into another is akin to ejaculation.
Through technology and images, anything can be erotic. Our relationships with our bodies and desires could be radically different, Cronenberg argued in a 1999 Cinéaste interview: “Why not have new sexual organs? We can do that surgically, we can do that neurologically, we can invent a new version of sex. People would probably like it, they would buy it.”
For Baudrillard, sex is “no more than the rarefaction of a drive called desire in pre-prepared zones. It is largely surpassed by the wide range of symbolic wounds.” Vaughan and his group want to rewrite the organization of erogenous zones through the libidinal energies that get released in car crashes. They want to control and repeat crashes of celebrities as a way to override and go beyond biology.
Cronenberg himself would say, in the same Cinéaste interview: “Look at sex as I do in Crash… even such a basic thing as sex is not what it used to be. We no longer need it to reproduce the species. We can call a moratorium on sex. This is the first time in history that we can say, sex is causing too many problems, it’s just too complicated, let’s just not have any for a hundred years and see what happens, we could literally do that. It wouldn’t mean that the race would die out.”