Extreme Cinema – Crash (1996)

Crash, 1996.

Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring James Spader, Deborah Unger, Holly Hunter, and Elias Koteas.


Whilst the depiction of sex and violence in films has often been the main focal point for the British Board of Film Classification’s decision making, never have the two been combined more provocatively in mainstream cinema as in the film Crash. This film is about a group of people who seek sexual gratification through car crashes. The film’s controversial subject matter led to a scathing review by critic Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard when he had seen it prior to its UK release at the Cannes film festival in 1996. This would start a ball rolling which despite its eventual uncut 18 certificate a year later would culminate in the banning of the film by Westminster and four other local councils. This was after a nationwide campaign against the film was engineered by the Daily Mail newspaper and its often hysterical film critic Christopher Tookey.

The central couple in the film, James and Catherine Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Unger) live in an apartment overlooking a motorway. They seek to spice up their sex lives by indulging in a series of casual affairs. When James is involved in a car accident he is immediately attracted to the passenger of the other car in the collision, Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). When the doctor and James recover in hospital they begin an affair and get involved with other like-minded people to fulfill their sexual fantasies. The film becomes even more bizarre when Catherine and James get involved with a character called Vaughn (Elias Koteas) who not only enjoys cuts and bruises from accidents but, along with a group of friends, recreates famous car crashes which killed celebrities such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. As the characters’ obsessions become progressively more extreme their lives are inevitably endangered.


Whilst Crash is undoubtedly an unusual film it is by no means the depraved piece of work the newspapers suggested. The film never rejoices in its characters’ bizarre fetish. In fact their addiction to car crashes is treated more like an affliction. They simply must engage in sex after being turned on by a car crash, whether participating in one or watching video films of crash test dummies. This also motivates them to engage in same-sex relations though it is never suggested that any character is naturally bisexual. The characters hardly smile in the film and do not appear to experience joy even during the numerous sex scenes. In fact many of the sex scenes are from the rear and so the characters do not even make eye contact or experience any kind of intimacy. Catherine in particular often looks distant even when making love to her husband. Director Cronenberg also ensures that the crashes take place in real time and are not enlivened by slow motion or other cinematic devices.

When released the film performed poorly at the British box office as audiences found it unengaging as it failed to deliver what they were expecting which is a conventional narrative thrust and appealing characters. Stylistically Crash continued the themes explored in Cronenberg’s other films – that of the merging of man with machine. In many ways the love of cars does suggest a sexual connotation. People are known to have sex in cars and car crashes tend to bring out a voyeuristic quality in people. The film suggests that in this emotionless world people turn to technology to experience sex rather than to each other, much like some peoples’ current addiction to pornography on the internet.

Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.


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