A few years ago a handwritten sign was spotted outside a theater in one of Manhattan’s more dismal neighborhoods. “Now!” it proclaimed, “The First Bondage Film With a Believable Story Line!” History does not tell us whether the picture lived up to that promise, but if it did it would be a leg up on the mind-numbing “Crash.”
The latest film by Canadian director David Cronenberg, “Crash” is not exactly about bondage; an ice-cold, sadomasochistic linkage of sex and pain is more its game. And the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed “Lost Highway” plays like “Lassie Come Home.”
“Crash” is the same film that won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes last year “for originality, daring and audacity.” But it was an award that so split the panel that, in an unprecedented moment, President Francis Ford Coppola announced from the podium that some jury members demanded a public statement that they had abstained.
Make no mistake, Cronenberg, a veteran filmmaker (“Rabid,” “The Brood,” “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers”) who has always been intrigued by what’s out of conventional bounds, has made exactly the film he, his devoted cast and expert cinematographer Peter Suschitzky intended. How much interest it will arouse outside that small circle is less secure.
Based on a 1973 cult novel by science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard (whose equally cold but quite different “Empire of the Sun” attracted Steven Spielberg’s attention), “Crash” is set in an undefined time frame, half present, half future. Its protagonists are a semi-detached couple, James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Canadian actress Deborah Kara Unger).
“Crash” doesn’t have a plot per se, it simply follows the fortunes of this non-monogamous pair after James gets hurt in a major automobile accident that kills a man and seriously injures his wife, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter).
In some inexplicable way that’s presented as a given, that crash serves as a powerful aphrodisiac for both Ballard and Remington, who begin to compulsively share distant sex in cars while talking about the mechanics of accidents.
Soon the couple is in communication with Vaughan (Elias Koteas, recently in Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica”), part cult leader, part mad scientist, part performance artist. A scar-covered veteran of numerous collisions whose ideas include staging a re-creation of the crash that killed James Dean, Vaughan includes among his accident-freak followers a seriously injured young woman named Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) who doesn’t let the braces and full-body harness she wears stand in the way of pleasure.
Though these people engage in frequent sex, it is impossible to over-emphasize how cold, nonerotic, almost intentionally asexual these acts are. Vaughan may consider crashes “liberating events” and his followers may get so turned on by accidents they treat footage of crash test dummies as if it were pornography, but the filmmaking here is so glacially paced (the final script was only 62 pages for a 100-minute film) and enervating that boredom is the most frequent result.
Director Cronenberg, whose passion for automobiles will extend to his projected next film, a Grand Prix drama called “Red Cars,” devoted an exceptional amount of time to “Crash’s” crashes. According to the press notes, “more than 200 picture vehicles and over 60 stunt drivers were employed [and] 25 automobiles were demolished or pre-wrecked for crash aftermaths.”
This concern for clashing metal notwithstanding, frank indifference is the most likely reaction to “Crash,” its proudly worn NC-17 rating notwithstanding. In that connection, it’s amusing to note that great pains are being taken to label this film as “controversial.” Remember “Showgirls,” remember “Striptease” and remember that for a canny marketing department “controversial” is the last refuge of the tedious. Kicks may be getting harder to find, but “Crash” is not a great place to look for new ones.
* MPAA rating: NC-17 for numerous explicit sex scenes. Times guidelines: The scenes are presented in a nonerotic manner.
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James Spader: James Ballard
Holly Hunter: Dr. Helen Remington
Elias Koteas: Vaughan
Deborah Kara Unger: Catherine Ballard
Rosanna Arquette: Gabrielle
An Alliance Communications Corp. production, released by Fine Line Features. Director David Cronenberg. Producers Stephane Reichel, Marilyn Stonehouse. Executive producers Jeremy Thomas, Robert Lantos. Screenplay David Cronenberg, from the novel by J.G. Ballard. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editor Ron Sanders. Costumes Denise Cronenberg. Music Howard Shore. Production design Carol Spier. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In limited release.