Bump and grind in the fast lane

Crash David Cronenberg (18)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's not everyone who can invent a new source of sexual excitement, but JG Ballard managed it in his 1973 novel Crash. The characters, both male and female, come to be aroused by car crashes, to eroticise the damage they do and the scars they leave. The book is extraordinarily powerful, building a mood of complicity and unwilling recognition in the most stubbornly pedestrian reader. Perhaps it's not surprising that David Cronenberg, after rendering one unfilmable novel in visual terms - Naked Lunch - should take on another.

His version of Burroughs' fantasmagoria was grudgingly received, and it's true that he imposed something incongruously like an emotional logic on a text that rules such things out. But it was an unusual and rewarding experience to be offered a stream of images and routines, some horrifying and some very funny, without it being spelt out which was which. Crash, moreover, embodies a scene which Cronenberg has explored excessively before, announced by the story's philosopher of autoeroticism, Vaughan, as "the reshaping of the human body by technology". Ballard and Cronenberg would seem to be a dream team, given that they both trade exclusively in nightmares.

On the screen, though, Crash is a remarkably uninvolving experience. It starts well - that is to say, the titles have been cleverly thought out. They move towards us like opposing traffic, the chrome of the lettering unobtrusively scarred. Howard Shore's music evokes the mood of gloomy tension that it will seem trapped in for the rest of the film.

In Ballard's prose, a car crash can be described in obsessive detail, with only a few equivocal adjectives to betray that it is not being regarded with the conventional horror. Cronenberg can't seem to find a cinematic equivalent. He adopts a realistic style, which becomes all the more ludicrous when a scene departs altogether from plausibility - three of the film's characters, for instance, wandering dreamily through the wreckage of a crash on a motorway, with no one seeming to notice or resent their presence.

There are some directors (David Lynch the prime example) whose skill is to strip away the usual associations from an object or event and fill it with a new aesthetic charge. The closest Cronenberg comes to success in this line is a shot of the hero's healing leg, after the accident that sensitises him to a new set of stimuli. The leg is curiously beautiful, almost an art object with its delicate crusts and fading discolorations. But the car crashes themselves, trivial or fatal, are beyond the director's powers to reshape aesthetically.

Perhaps it is partly that Hollywood has programmed us for so many years to treat car crashes as pure narrative punctuation, no more emotionally involving than a cymbal crash in a symphony. Jean-Luc Godard exploited this indifference in the farcical anarchism of Weekend, but Cronenberg tries to counteract or subvert it, without inviting us to care about the people involved.

James Ballard (James Spader) meets Helen (Holly Hunter) when he loses control of his car and crashes into hers, killing her husband. From this socially promising introduction - after they have healed up somewhat - an intense affair arises, in which cars are somehow a necessary part. They meet the comprehensively scarred Vaughan, who is somewhere between a prophet and a performance artist (Elias Koteas plays the part with the second-hand intensity of a poor man's Robert De Niro) and also Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), who needs callipers to walk.

Ballard's wife Catherine (Deborah Unger), sexually restless even before her husband's accident, eagerly explores this new domain of arousal. The sexual permutations, hetero- and homosexual, are gone through without the viewer caring for any one coupling over another. Holly Hunter in particular is expert at soliciting an audience's identification, but her talents in that area are not called on. Everything is exhaustively designed and utterly unfelt; gold and silver suds on a car's windows looking lovely during a sex act in a car wash, the women's costumes on another occasion fortuitously matching the colours of the interior where they seek their pleasure.

The composer seems to have a soft spot for the hero's wife which the screenplay does nothing to justify. So the instrumentation shifts, when Catherine is central to a scene, from slow jangling electric guitars to brooding melancholy strings. Perhaps this is to damp down the potential black comedy of the situation: jaded wife who can only be turned on by having her car rammed and driven off the road. There are other moments when a giggle threatens to materialise, though no welcome has been prepared for it, like the scene in which Helen defends Vaughan against the suggestion that he has run someone over. She points out that he has no interest whatsoever in pedestrians.

David Cronenberg may admire Ballard's work, but on the evidence of his earlier films he has absorbed that influence, and Crash is a backward step for him. Earlier films are full of sexual and technological mutations that make the destructive love of human for car in Crash seem one-sided. In Naked Lunch, for instance, a typewriter was so excited by the pornography written on it that it grew sexual organs and joined the sweaty tussle on the floor. After that delirious sequence, the cars in Crash seem perversely unresponsive, frigid even. Their mirrors unmisted by their own lust, coachwork unmelted by interior desire.

The British Board of Film Classification took its own sweet time over Crash, before passing it as 18 without cuts. Local councils shouldn't intervene in this perfectly sensible decision. They must have better things to do, surely, than to ban a sombre warning of the dangers of a perversion that doesn't exist.

On release from tomorrow