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Crash (1996)

by on 2010/08/12

I moved to Toronto in the early 90s for a job in publishing. At first, to my small-town girl eyes, Toronto seemed a nightmare of steel and concrete. There were grey skyscrapers with people stacked on top of each other obscuring the orange horizon.

There were patches of dead grass slashed between huge slabs of pavement. Cars were packed onto roadways so closely that they looked like a continuous serpent of shining steel, chrome and glass.

The city was alive but grafted with metal, like a human leg pinioned by the metal rods of a traction splint.

I soon grew to love Toronto in a way I’ve never loved another city. I’ve always thought of Crash (1996) as director David Cronenberg’s creepy-sexy love poem to Toronto.

I watched Cronenberg’s controversial, Cannes Film Festival award-winning film about car-crash fetishists when it came out. The experience was exhilarating and unsettling.

Mere moments into the film, I realized that I lived in a concrete highrise across the highway from Crash’s James Ballard (James Spader). I could see the same intersection of Toronto’s two major arteries from my balcony (the ribbons of highway asphalt jammed with cars) as the jaded Ballard and his beautiful wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger).

Ballard is bored, jaded and pent-up. Catherine and James are unfaithful to one another, using the detailed retelling of their respective infidelities to bring frisson to their stagnating relationship.

Isn’t until Ballard suffers a near-fatal car crash that he realizes what his life is missing. His car wreck involved another victim, the mysterious Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). His wounds barely healed, Ballard follows Remington into the world of car crash victims/fetishists who compulsively watch tapes of car crashes, and re-enact famous celebrity car collisions for the sexual thrill.

Ballard is introduced to the community’s true prophet Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who believes that a car crash is a “fertilizing rather than a destructive event.” Vaughan also believes that death by car crash has “an intensity that’s impossible in any other form.”

As Ballard follows Vaughan relentlessly deeper and deeper into the kink, he engages in encounters with Remington, Vaughan and Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a woman whose legs are sheathed in steel braces.

The psycho-sexual games involving Ballard and his wife, Vaughan, Gabrielle and Remington become increasingly frenzied and destructive. The journey is breath-stopped-in-your-throat shocking and fascinating.

The peerless purveyor of body horror, David Cronenberg explores bodily alteration and transformation though infection, disease and injury. Crash focuses on transformation through car crashes, the explosive, volcanic collision between tons of twisted mental and glass, and the human body.

There’s something so still, cold and perfect about the performances of Spader, Hunter, Unger, Koteas in Crash. Koteas is like watching a predator, circling and focused.  Unger and Spader are languid, almost dreamy. Hunter is almost robotic.

The look of this film was Toronto. Steel, cool, concrete, clean, dark, inaccessible.

Polarizing, off-putting and somehow eerily beautiful, Crash is one of Canada’s most important films of all time.

* * * *

140 minutes

Rated R for sexuality, violence

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