Cars, death, sex

David Cronenberg has been feeding our nightmares for two decades. So what is it about his latest film, 'Crash', that we need to be protected from? Ryan Gilbey gets close to the heart of darkness
You expect wild hungry eyes. Perhaps a slight foaming at the mouth. An untucked shirt at the very least. What you get is a model of civility and good humour. Which is, in itself, just as unnerving. It's been noted before, of course, but it still startles - this vast disparity between the David Cronenberg suggested by films like Dead Ringers and Videodrome, and the David Cronenberg who sits before me, relaxing after lunch, warmly discussing his chilly work with a blitheness that would not be out of place on Richard and Judy's settee. A staff member at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where I am meeting Cronenberg, shares my shock: "I saw him with his wife and kids. He looks just like a nice, ordinary family man." Of course. It's always the nice, ordinary ones you've got to watch out for.

The 53-year-old writer-director has been making films and feeding nightmares and being perfectly charming for over two decades now. His first feature, Shivers, was a graphic horror story about a venereal disease whose aphrodisiac qualities ensure its continuing survival. On its 1975 release, the picture attracted acclaim from European critics. But in Canada, Cronenberg's home country, it was mercilessly vilified.

Twenty-one years and 10 movies later, Cronenberg finds himself experiencing the same violent reactions to his latest film - Crash (from JG Ballard's perverse and disturbing novel). Some regard it as an exceptional, visionary film. Others would rather be knocked down in a hit-and-run accident than ever have to suffer another frame of it again. The picture follows two car-crash survivors. James Ballard (James Spader) and Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), as they are drawn to each other, and to the sinister Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a man whose sex drive is inextricably linked to his insatiable passion for smashing up automobiles.

In Cannes this year, Crash met with angry dissent from many critics, a reaction that was only exacerbated when the film went on to win the Special Jury Prize. Why the fuss? Well, there are the blunt, disorientating car crashes, filmed in real time without cut-aways or slow-motion. But mostly, there's the sex. Lots of it. You really can't miss it. Scene after scene after scene. When it's all over, you may find that you will be put off sex and cars, not to mention sex in cars, for some weeks.

When I see the film in Paris, 17 members of the audience walk out. Each time it's during a sex scene. Cronenberg is delighted. "It's kind of charming that sex can still get a reaction like this," he smiles. "The people who are walking out would probably have no trouble watching hard-core pornography. But it's not the sex, it's the meaning, the context. You encounter multiple sex-scenes only in pornography, which is why people start to think this is a porno film. Though I think if you came to Crash for pornography, you'd be very disappointed.

"It's to do with form. They're not like other sex scenes where you drum your fingers and wait for the movie to get going again. Everything is being delivered in these scenes - character, narrative, theme. People aren't used to seeing sex this way."

The sex / driving equation is also a prominent part of the film. "That might be something that bothers people," Cronenberg concedes. "There is a lot of Vaughan in most of us. We like to suppress him, but he's there. I can't imagine anyone driving who has not at one moment wanted to crash into somebody else. You usually don't do it, but the impulse is there. And if you're honest about it, and what it means to you ... well, then you've got Vaughan."

At the time of writing, Crash still has to land a British distributor. You might have heard that the voices who matter consider it too hot to handle. Or you might hear about a clause in the film's small print forbidding a sale of less than pounds 2m, an unfeasible amount once you remember that Crash will not be a big hit with the all-important Saturday night dating crowd.

However, Crash is guaranteed one thing when it opens: a rush of media attention mirroring the hysterical Cannes reaction. For Cronenberg, it must be like Shivers all over again. Shock, revulsion, disgust - some things don't change.

And some things do. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was acceptable to assess Cronenberg by lumping him in with peers who also happened to be utilising copious amounts of blood and dismembered limbs in their work - John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper. He was considered no more than a slasher king, a horror hack specialising in killer dwarfs and exploding heads.

But that wasn't it at all. We can see that now, when we mourn the negotiations and compromises that have stunted the careers of Carpenter, Romero and Hooper. Compare those squandered talents to Cronenberg, who has clung to his independent status (he has yet to be tempted by Hollywood) and with it his integrity and creative control. What he hasn't done is as important as what he has. He rejected offers to direct Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun, and sensibly snubbed The Fly II. Even Carpenter readily admitted, "Cronenberg is better than the rest of us combined."

And we can see now what there was in Cronenberg's first films as they are refracted through his later masterpieces Dead Ringers, in which Jeremy Irons played twin gynaecologists, and The Fly. We can see past the gore, and the ramshackle performances. We can see what he was getting at all along. Those early movies - Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and the 1980 commercial breakthrough Scanners - may have been made for only slightly more money than it actually cost to see them (which accounts for their stilted, embalmed feel). But they are built upon the same obsessions that have driven this coolly intellectual auteur to undertake some of cinema's most devastating psychological excavation jobs.

Mortality, disease, spiritual isolation - these are the big ones, the themes that haunt Cronenberg's work. From Shivers through to Crash, he works these things over and over, scrutinising them from every angle. With the new film, there is the sense that he has once more fastened his jaws on something intangible, something profound. After the digressions of his last two films - a brave stab at William Burroughs's Naked Lunch and a foolhardy lunge at M Butterfly - the director has returned to a stark world where the characters are as desolate and forbidding as the concrete landscapes that fence them in. To paraphrase Euro 96 and Tony Blair: Cronenberg's coming home. Which is where that ordinary, personable family man comes in.

You sense that Cronenberg relishes the bewildered reaction he elicits from people, something close to, "Very amusing, now where's the real David Cronenberg?". Cinema does funny things to us. We confuse the art with the artist. Fusion is Cronenberg's speciality, be it the marriage of man and technology in Videodrome, man and insect in The Fly, or man and automobile in Crash. Then there is artistic fusion, the process that Cronenberg undergoes when interpreting another writer's work.

You hesitate to use the word "adapt". Instead of trying to hammer the literary work into presentable cinematic shape, Cronenberg captures an essence. With Naked Lunch, he plaited together sections of the novel with episodes from Burroughs's life, and found himself writing the screenplay in an effortlessly Burroughsian style. Another kind of fusion occurred with Crash.

"There are moments when I can't remember which scenes are in the book and which I invented myself," he notes proudly, "and that's when you know you're really in the groove. Ballard says that Crash is more autobiographical even than Empire of the Sun but, of course, it's interior autobiography, while Empire ... is external. I completely understand that. He has lived a bourgeois, middle-class life, and I have, too, at least on the outside."

So is film-making a way of exorcising his inner demons?

"I suppose so. For me, it's a process of philosophical exploration, which means you're exploring things that are not in your life, nor do you want them to be. Things you fear. Every time a character dies in one of my films, it's sort of a small rehearsal by me of my own death to see how it feels, how I deal with it. I don't mean that in a morbid way. There can be a playful quality even to an exploration of your own death."

Does it make you any more understanding, or any less afraid, of death? He pauses for the first time that afternoon. "One hopes so," he says finally, sounding frail and vulnerable and suddenly not sure of anything at all.