Erotic and antierotic, Crash the movie begins boldly enough with a vacantly lissome blonde (Deborah Kara Unger) dreamily opening her blouse to press a bare nipple against the enameled surface of an airplane fuselage before allowing a total stranger to take her from behind. The tone is so solemn one might be tempted to laugh—were this not the first of three increasingly peculiar sex scenes.

Sex, largely in cars, is pretty much a Crash constant, but Cronenberg, who wrote as well as directed, actually distills a narrative out of Ballard’s laconic phantasmagoria. The film’s protagonists are a jaded married couple—morose swingers with a mutual taste for risky liaisons and a need to regale each other with an account of their extramarital exploits. Or maybe it’s just that James (James Spader) is trying to attract the attention of his hilariously self-absorbed Catherine (Unger). At once dazed and hyperalert, she is forever looking sidelong off-camera. No sooner does her husband initiate a caress than her eyes slide away from him like marbles on a table.

James’s accidental encounter with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter)—namely the head-on automobile collision that kills her husband—brings the couple in contact with a sexual subculture of car-crash enthusiasts. Alienated isn’t even the word for these thrill seekers, who are led by the charismatic Vaughan (Elias Koteas, bringing the insinuating, obsessive quality of his work with Atom Egoyan to this hospital-ghoul role). Catherine and James have their hottest sex fantasizing about rough-trade Vaughan and his . . . wheels. (“I’ll bet he’s fucked lots of women in that big car,” Catherine sighs. “I’ll bet it smells of semen.” “It does,” her husband assures her.)

In the novel, Vaughan is obsessed with crashing his 1963 black Lincoln convertible (the same model as the JFK death car) into Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. In the movie, he restages famous crack-ups—“The Fatal Crash of James Dean”—on a deserted nighttime road. Vaughan’s announced project is to use modern technology to “reshape the human body”—a process Cronenberg has himself explored quite memorably in Videodrome and Dead Ringers. The cult’s mascot Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) is, in fact, a sort of cyborg—the Dr. Strangelove of sex, wrapping a leather miniskirt around customized braces that manage to suggest a prosthetic limb, a hockey goalie’s shin guard, and some unnamable s/m device.

Cronenberg’s hypnotic effect does not preclude an extremely dry humor. Just as Ballard’s entire novel might be described as a gloss on the term autoeroticism, so the movie’s funniest jokes—if joke is the correct term—are purely visual. Most are puns in which automobiles mimic the human sexual response or vice versa—a close-up of an automatic car window slowly rising, the running-gag equation of tailgating and rear-entry intercourse. In one memorable scene, the cult sits around getting off on videotapes of Swedish test crashes, as if to clinch the identification between Volvos and vulvas.

Its tone perfectly sustained throughout, Crash manages the tricky feat of feeling like sci-fi while looking like Now. Most of the movie is set in the generic nowhere of Toronto’s bland, highrise-cum-industrial outskirts—an antiseptic location rendered all the more dreamlike by the characters’ activities (as well as the lush drone of Howard Shore’s atonal score). Having survived their accident to land in an otherwise empty airport hospital, both James and Helen conclude, pace Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that something is different: The world is filled with ever more traffic.

A highway cloverleaf may subsequently seem creepily organic but, scarcely a gross-out, Crash is too stylized for splatter and too astutely edited to be porn. And, despite several choreographed instances of highway bumper cars, it’s hardly an action film. “This is a work of art,” Vaughan exclaims as he raptly photographs the vast multivehicle pileup that Cronenberg has devised. So, too, are the movie’s fastidiously created scars, suggestively oblique montage, seductively fetishized surfaces, and deadpan fantastic medical devices. The impact is largely cerebral—Crash is one witty, poetic, brilliantly worked-out film.

Although he follows some of Ballard’s baroquely detailed sexual scenarios, Cronenberg has his own agendas. Every shot is designed to wring pathos from trauma. The lyrical tour de force, in which James uses the rearview mirror to watch Vaughan and Catherine screwing in the backseat as the sex machine they’re riding in passes through the sudsy deluge of an automatic car wash, is matched only by the mad passion with which he rips Gabrielle’s mesh stockings to fuck the new orifice that some automobile or surgeon has cut in her leg: Sex is also a technology.

Uncompromising in its melancholia, Crash establishes a profound sense of seeking comfort in the crevices of a lacerating, metallic world. In the context of this brilliant science fiction, our species is imagined as vulnerable bits of oozing, sucking, coupling, retracting, yearning protoplasm. Does the thought disturb you? Shown on a double bill with a blithe futurist entertainment like Speed or Star Wars, Crash would emerge as the infinitely more honest and moral movie.

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