PRINT March 1997


“The deviant technology of the car-crash provided the sanction for any perverse act.”
—J.G. Ballard

SO CONCLUDES JAMES BALLARD, the conveniently named narrator of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, while contemplating a tryst with the story’s already damaged homme fatal, Vaughan, a brutal and charismatic ex-scientist whose current “project” documents grisly collisions between human flesh and Detroit dashboards. Just as Ballard found a green light for his darkest imaginings in the peculiar resonance of the car crash, David Cronenberg discovered in this “deviant technology” a new way “to show the unshowable,” resulting in his most disturbing film to date. For those intimate with Cronenberg’s imagery—exploding heads, vaginal stomach wounds, gynecological tools for “mutant women,” giant roaches with talking anuses—the already elastic definition of “disturbing” has been stretched to the point of meaninglessness. Yet with Crash, Cronenberg has moved—as one typically tight-sphinctered British critic put it—“beyond the bounds of depravity.” For Cronenberg aficionados, such censure functions as a tantalizing press release, for after all, one man’s depravity is another man’s cup of tea. If a Cronenberg film didn’t mow down fifteen different notions of moral acceptability, then back up and plow them over again, it wouldn’t be a Cronenberg film. Through Ballard’s calmly psychotic source material, though, Cronenberg has distilled his primary theme—psychological and bodily mutation—dispensing with rebellious flesh and twitching viscera in favor of far more unnerving internal transformations.

Originally published in 1973, Crash is Ballard’s grim report on the emergence of what he calls “a nightmare logic” in the affectless, media-saturated landscape of the late ’60s. The bleak, somewhat noir narrative follows the descent of a jaded couple, who sustain their marriage by confessing their adulterous escapades to one another, into the polymorphically perverse world of Vaughan and his car-crash fetishists. Along the way, James Ballard and his wife Catherine lose their already tenuous grip on reality, yet gain a new intimacy, made possible by the “deviant technology” of the auto wreck and its resultant injuries. On first inspection, their strange journey seems as unsympathetic as Vaughan’s fetish is baffling, yet the seductive tone of Crash beckons even the most squeamish readers to abandon their previous notions of morality and sexuality. Like the new form of intercourse Ballard enjoys with the leg wound of Vaughan’s most mutilated female follower, Crash is a perverse act that calls the very concept of perversity into question.

For a reader untutored in Ballard’s typically clinical tone, the most disturbing aspect of the novel is its apparent lack of moral posture regarding its characters’ self-destructive obsession. Ballard hastens to add that Crash is “a cautionary tale,” a deadpan exploration of extreme atrocity in the mode of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Cronenberg jettisons Ballard’s disclaimer like a crash-test dummy, resulting in an even more boldly attractive statement than Ballard himself intended. As the director freely admits, Cronenberg assumes the role of Vaughan for his audience: “’Things you normally look away from actually reveal a kind of beauty—a different aesthetic—and I’m going to convey that to you in as seductive a way as possible.’” Through deep-blue lighting and chrome details, through the repulsively sexy performance of Elias Koteas as Vaughan, and through the inviting wounds decorating Rosanna Arquette’s body, he succeeds.

Andrew Hultkrans