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'Crash': Wham, Bam, No Thank You, Ma'am

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 21, 1997

"Crash" savors -- or slavers over -- the emotional connection between car accidents and sexual arousal. Rubbernecking, we learn, goes deeper than crass tastelessness. In this technologically promiscuous age, itís a turn-on. Or something like that.

In this bracing adaptation of J.G. Ballardís pathologically phantasmagorical novel, television producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), light the gloom of their empty relationship with frank accounts of their extramarital conquests. Theyíre desperately in need of a new thrill.

Their lives are transformed when James is involved in a car accident that leaves him bruised and broken and the male passenger in the other car dead. But the other, surviving driver, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), gets all revved up over this horrible collision. After leaving the hospital, James and Helen climb into his mangled car and discover a new kind of auto-eroticism.

Suddenly, a whole world is opened for James and the sexually experimental Catherine: a subculture of car-crash survivors who seek to reexperience the mortality they so narrowly escaped by purposefully getting into more accidents and having sexual liaisons with fellow survivors.

James, Catherine and Helen become disciples of Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a scarred, accident-obsessive who never met a dummy auto-crash video he didnít like and who loves to restage and emcee his way through such famous accidents as the 1955 James Dean fatality. For the Dean reenactment, a small crowd gathers as two cars (including a replica of Deanís Porsche Spyder) face each other down a stretch of open road. The two stuntmen -- joined by Vaughan in the Dean car -- literally collide with each other. Theyíre left shaken, bloodied and battered.

"I would really like to work out the details of the Jayne Mansfield crash," Vaughan tells one of his collaborators, after the impact.

Director David Cronenberg, whose work includes "The Fly," "Dead Ringers" and "Naked Lunch," seems bent on interpreting art at its cruelest and narrowest. He seems to exude a replicant-like coolness in his work. Here, he gives us not a vision but a collision of warm-blooded flesh and cold-plated metal. Weíre supposed to watch in esoteric/fetishist reverence as James, Catherine and Helen get all hot and bothered over each otherís bruises, punctured flesh and gruesome stitches.

In one scene, crash survivor Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) hobbles around in a black-leather-and-chrome body suit and leg braces. She also sports a cane. Her big scene occurs when she asks a showroom salesman to force her body into the cramped driverís seat of a small sports car. She doesnít bend too easily.

But where does this all take us? Well, Cronenberg probably isnít your best choice for designated driver.

"Crash" doesnít extend beyond its most immediate sensationalism. When the movie does attempt to find a theme, it slams into a brick wall of mumbo-jumbo. The car crash, declares Vaughan, represents "a liberation of sexual energy that mediates the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form."

Any questions?

CRASH (NC-17) ó Contains aberrant sexual situations, nudity, car-crash violence, profanity and no-fault licentiousness.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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