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Dead Man’s Curve: David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash,’ 25 Years After Cannes

Two and a half decades ago, the iconoclastic Canadian filmmaker delivered one his most controversial features to the most hallowed of film festivals. The jury was so flabbergasted, they had to invent an award for it.

Alliance/Ringer illustration

“I have unfinished business with the future,” said David Cronenberg earlier this month, announcing his return to active filmmaking after a seven-year break that was beginning to look like something else: the premature conclusion of one of the great directorial careers.

Since 2014’s scabrous Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars—a movie featuring award magnet Julianne Moore getting bludgeoned bloodily with a little golden statuette—Cronenberg has had to watch from the sideline while his son Brandon has extended the family brand (most impressively with last year’s grotesque Possessor) and fellow sacred-monster elder statesmen like Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven, and Paul Schrader keep finding projects (and financing), even as their politically incorrect attitudes fall out of fashion. How could a director who’d stayed on cinema’s serrated edge for so long be on the outside looking in? Last year, in an interview with The Guardian, the then-76-year-old Cronenberg revealed that Netflix had passed on his script for an adaptation of his own 2014 novel Consumed and confessed that he’d be “perfectly OK” if he never made another movie again.

In the same interview, Cronenberg dismissed superhero movies as “asexual” and echoed the sentiments of his friend and admirer Martin Scorsese—who once said he was terrified to meet Cronenberg in person after watching his movies—citing the fatigue of attempting anything original in a marketplace grown exponentially obsessed with renovating existing, high-end intellectual properties. “The more unusual a film is,” the director sighed, “the more resistance you’ll face.”

Few directors know as much about resistance as Cronenberg, who has experienced about as much of it as any English-language director you can name, from almost being evicted from his apartment by a scandalized landlady who’d read hysterical reviews of his thriller Shivers to getting publicly denounced by Ted Turner, who tried to keep his company from releasing Crash. (Perhaps Turner was just mad that the director’s hometown Blue Jays had dispatched the Braves a few years earlier.)

But resistance is also Cronenberg’s artistic MO. In film after film, the filmmaker who once claimed he was “exploding heads just like any other young, normal North American boy” has blown up genre clichés from the inside out, slicing through or skewering taboos about the body, the mind, and the relationship between intellect and instinct. “Long live the new flesh” declares a character at the close of Videodrome, a deeply disturbing satire that viewed popular culture at once skeptically and ecstatically as a transformational force—James Woods diving headfirst into a throbbing television set outfitted with a pair of hungry, crimson-red lips is as prescient a pre-internet image as exists in ’80s cinema. That Cronenberg’s upcoming thriller is called Crimes of the Future could be an inside joke on the auteur’s past history (he made a lo-fi sci-fi horror movie with the same title in 1970, about a mad dermatologist) or a promise that for all his previous transgressions, the worst is still—happily—yet to come.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Cronenberg cemented his legacy as a provocateur for all time when the Cannes Film Festival literally invented an award to bestow on Crash—a prize described by jury president Francis Ford Coppola as being “for originality, for daring, and for audacity.” Obviously, the emphasis was meant to be on “audacity,” and the gossip was that Coppola was against the citation, but his fellow jurors insisted on recognizing Crash’s discomfiting brilliance. (“During the final closing night ceremony, [Coppola] wouldn’t hand me the award,” Cronenberg recalled in 2020. “He had someone else hand it to me.”)

Cannes’ self-image has always been as the place where old-fashioned glamour and restless aesthetic invention intersect. But no movie in the festival’s history had ever chipped shoulders or exposed nerves like Cronenberg’s cool, assured adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about a cabal of car-crash fetishists—advocates and acolytes of the same “new flesh” evangelized in Videodrome. Reviewing the film after its world premiere on May 16, 1996, Alexander Walker opined in The Evening Standard that it contained “some of the most perverted acts and theories of sexual deviance I have ever seen propagated in mainline cinema.” Another British critic, Christopher Tookey, later described the film as “the point at which a liberal society must draw the line.”

Crossing thresholds—and not looking back in the rearview mirror—is the great theme of Crash, which stars James Spader as James Ballard, a clear surrogate for the novel’s author but also for Cronenberg, a tradition extending backward through the filmmaker’s thinly veiled avatars in Videodrome, The Fly, and Naked Lunch. Those films were about men losing—or maybe finding—themselves in quests for extremity, whether through a pornographic cable channel, scientific experimentation, or a surfeit of brain-melting bug juice. When James casually tells his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) about an unsatisfying tryst with a coworker, her deadpan reply “maybe next time” both absolves his serial philandering while mocking the likelihood that a deceptively mild-mannered freak will ever find what he’s looking for.

Cronenberg’s screenplay adaptation transplants the action from Ballard’s London to the director’s native Toronto and retains the basic plot line while adding details that consolidate his own authorship. In the filmed version of the story, James is a commercial film producer, and his gradual integration into a secret subculture that worships at the altar of car crash erotica (auto-erotica?)—inserting its members into re-creations of infamous car wrecks like the one that killed James Dean and applauding their performances as human crash test dummies—plays satirically as a hack being indoctrinated into a kamikaze avant-garde. His guide and would-be guru is Vaughan (Elias Koteas), whose soft-spoken cadences suggest the auteur-as-svengali, stage-managing his followers into late-night drag races that split the difference between performance art and snuff film. Or maybe it’s The Fast and the Furious for perverts: To paraphrase Vin Diesel, Vaughan’s suicidal ambition is to end his life one quarter-mile at a time.

On the page, Crash exemplifies Ballard’s genius for lucid, dispassionate depravity: The writer was famously deemed in need of psychiatric help by a potential publisher, and the way he inventories horrible scenarios both real and imagined—or, more to the point, fantasized about by characters in thrall to their own masochism—all but dares the reader to investigate or else concede that there’s something hypnotic (and maybe relatable) in the head-on collision of eroticism and bone-breaking violence.

When the British filmmaker Ben Wheatley adapted Ballard’s High-Rise in 2015, he and writer Amy Jump tried to replicate the atrocity-exhibition aspect of the author’s prose with mixed results; playing savvily to his strengths, Cronenberg withholds. In a brilliant, insightful essay commissioned for Crash’s Criterion Blu-Ray release, Jessica Kiang observed that the movie honors its source material’s explicitness while extracting much of its relentlessly subjective free-floating cruelty. “[Crash] feels faithful, when really it represents a complete overhaul that goes far beyond even the usual surgery required to translate a book of 224 cramped, crazed pages into a 100-minute feature film. … Crash—a radically empty film for radically empty times—is a work of ruthless excision.”

Kiang’s invocation of emptiness is apt. Going back to his low-budget, experimental origins, Cronenberg always has been a filmmaker who has manipulated minimalism. His movies cultivate a stilted, clinical affect that could easily be mistaken for amateurishness if not for the way it heightens the clarity of his ideas and his imagery (when he cast porn icon Marilyn Chambers in 1977’s Rabid, her neurasthenic acting style fit right in).

Occasionally, Cronenberg has allowed uniquely charismatic actors to hot-wire his movies, like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone and Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, both of whom wring wonderful variations on the archetype of the tragic, self-sacrificing goofball, and more recently, Viggo Mortensen has done brilliant work playing characters repressing savage shadow selves in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. But Spader’s acting in Crash is more in line with the director’s usual leading men: He’s calm, somnolent, and cool to the touch—it’s a chrome-plated performance. And he’s perfect: The blandly handsome, strangely tranced-out James seems essentially desensitized from the start (“I’m beginning to feel like a potted plant”). His initiation into Vaughan’s inner circle—which also involves sexual encounters with fellow followers like Helen (Holly Hunter) and Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette)—doesn’t play like a man renouncing his humanity so much as his attempt to locate and embrace it. The effort to puncture a comfortable numbness is one that Cronenberg hints is not particular to him, but a widespread turn-of-the-millennium condition.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking exactly why Crash raised so many hackles to such a skyscraping degree in 1996; the only other movie from the late ’90s to cause so much cultural hand-wringing (at least in sight of the mainstream) was Fight Club, which could actually be its twin (or, as per the Cronenbergian vernacular, its Dead Ringer). Both movies are about bored urban professionals so desperate to feel something that they’re willing to risk life, limb, and ostracization from their bougie social circles; both films are ringed with a subtext of homoeroticism that goes beyond the plot and has to do with how the filmmakers frame their actors (Cronenberg is as enraptured by Koteas as David Fincher is by Brad Pitt) and linger over twisted, broken limbs. When Edward Norton’s narrator sneers that he “wanted to destroy something beautiful” after pummeling Jared Leto’s blond underling into goo, aggression melds queasily with repressed desire. Crash’s point-of-no-return moment, involving a character inviting a partner to penetrate an old wound, reverses the equation, suggesting not only kink but a subconscious longing to regenerate or heal.

As a movie lover coming of age in Toronto at the time of Crash’s theatrical release, I keenly remember the feeling that something illicit and even dangerous was being unleashed by the film’s release, and yet like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—another ’90s movie that caused something like moral panic, albeit on a bigger and trashier mainstream scale—the resistance to Crash had less to do with the old standbys of sex or nudity than the specifics of the filmmaking. In the neo-Puritan context of MonicaGate, the only thing scarier to cultural gatekeepers than a movie that was too sexy was a movie filled with sex that wasn’t conventionally or marketably sexy at all. Crucially, Crash doesn’t ask us to identify with James, or even really adopt his point of view (although a shot of Hunter’s Helen staring at him through a broken windshield after a collision, her body slumped and breast ambiguously exposed, is hard to shake). Instead, Cronenberg observes its characters’ impulses and convictions at a glancing, intimate distance and—to use a metaphor that Vaughan might appreciate—invites us to play chicken with our own sense of alienation or disgust rushing up to meet us. A sequence when Vaughan trawls through a floodlit accident scene snapping photographs is allegory, autocritique, and accusation all rolled into one: Like all genuinely provocative artists, Cronenberg knows how to turn his audience into rubberneckers.

The last time I watched Crash was also the last time I saw a movie outside the confines of my home. Last August, the film was screened at a drive-in theater close to the southern end of Toronto to promote a traveling, uncut, NC-17, 4K restoration. The gimmick was irresistible, but the experience was frustrating. Of all the things drive-ins are conducive to, focused viewing of a quiet, gray scale movie whose most unsettling moments are borderline subliminal is not one of them. Add the echoey Top 40 tunes wafting on the Lake Ontario air from a makeshift outdoor nightclub a few lots down and it felt a bit like a movie filled with images of disfigurement was itself being mutilated (though I suppose if you have to give Crash an after-the-fact R&B soundtrack, Toronto pain-fetishist the Weeknd is not the worst choice). I stayed till the end, but a lot of others didn’t, and the steady parade of cars pulling out during the film’s second half brought back memories of a high school friend telling me that her parents had walked out of the original movie (and that they hadn’t been alone).

I myself snuck into Crash during its first theatrical run, which as a teenager I considered a patriotic duty. And while I expect that I’ll be able to pass even more plausibly for an adult by the time Crimes of the Futures comes out, I’ll enter the theater with a similar sense of pride. (Presuming, of course, that movie theaters are still around: Way back in 2007, Cronenberg produced a grimly hilarious short film casting himself as the last-ever brick-and-mortar moviegoer, ready and willing to blow his brains out over the impending death of theatrical exhibition. The man does not miss.) For now, though, Crash holds up nicely—and nastily—as the cinematic equivalent of unfinished business, right up to a finale that, among other things, hints that Cronenberg suspects he didn’t go far enough. Maybe next time; until then, the hope of audacity should keep us running.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.