Between the title of JG Ballard’s novel and that of the film, an exclamation point has disappeared. This lack, wanted by Cronenberg, suffices to express what Crash (1996) is not, and maybe it is. Those who expected a film full of sound and fury, built around the adrenaline of speed and the din of roaring engines, will be at their expense. We are at the antipodes of a “fast and furious” cinema, to use an expression which designates a current “franchise” but also the mode of operation of most Hollywood “blockbusters”, built around violent stimuli sent to the spectators. It is not the project of Cronenberg, who has already, in a way, made this kind of films.
Crash, if it evokes the car accident as a morbid spectacle, through the theatrical reconstructions of Vaughan, is not a spectacular film. The twelfth feature film by David Cronenberg aims above all to penetrate the intimacy of a couple, and to explore the dark side of a small group of men and women in search of sensations and new pleasures. This is why the whole film takes place in an atmosphere of secrecy and silence. Crash also invites us, in a universe close to ours but marked by a sort of dreamlike distance, to experience modern solitude and isolation. From the first sequence, past a credits with chrome letters, and slightly deformed by a shock, emerging from the darkness and lit by car headlights, we find ourselves in a space inhabited by machines, with arrogant cinematography – private planes. A very beautiful blond woman, also sublimated by the icy light of the deserted hangar, bares one breast and rubs it on the fuselage of an aircraft. She seems more disturbed by this caress with the steel than by the efforts of her lover, squatting behind her and plunging his head between her buttocks. The opening sequence of Crash establishes the “modus operandi” of the many erotic scenes that will follow one another in the film. The arrangement of the bodies prohibits the exchange of glances. The search for pleasure is solitary, almost onanist, even if the sexual act is practiced in twos, or threes.
Humans seem to be a minority, a small isolated community in an urban and industrial environment invaded by machines, and mainly cars. Ballard observes from his balcony the incessant car traffic on the ring road, observes that the flow of cars has increased, like an invasion or the spread of a virus in an organism. Cronenberg no longer needs in Crash perfected special effects to convey a technological presence that alienates human beings. Like all great visionary filmmakers, his cinema is above all a matter of recording reality – here a simple freeway slip road – which he charges with an implicit meaning.
To express the emotional glaze that grips his characters, but also their value as chosen ones, like the first members of a sect, Cronenberg chooses to stage them in empty spaces, deserted by the human figure. It’s very noticeable in the hospital sequence after the first accident, when Catherine comes to visit her convalescent husband. Ballard is the sole occupant of a huge dormitory. The dialogues explain this surprising absence of patients or hospital staff – we are in an airport hospital, ready to receive the possible victims of an air disaster – but the visual impression is that of an inter-world, which makes understand to the spectators that Ballard and Catherine have lost all contact with their fellows. Sexual flirtations have become the only means of communication between them, insufficient to fill their frustration.
There are never crowds in Cronenberg’s films. We remember that the stories of Fly, False pretenses Where Mr Butterfly concentrated around a very small core of characters. Crash prolongs this rarefaction of the human – only a cluster of spectators attends the automobile “happenings” of Vaughan. At one point in the film, noting the drop in traffic on the highway, Ballard asks himself the question: “Where has everyone gone? Cronenberg’s heroes are alone, because they are already evolving in a parallel dimension – an antechamber of death or a doorway to a new existence.
To this aesthetic of empty space is added a very particular use of the voice. Crash is a whispered film, in which no character comes to shout or even raise their voices. This is one of the characteristics of Cronenberg’s cinema, which favors whispered or calmly spoken words over loud voices. This contributes to the strangeness of his films, where the characters evolve in an almost hypnotic state, between dream and reality. Crash, which comes as close as possible to the intimacy of its protagonists, is the apogee of this principle. Catherine’s soft, unruffled voice only adds to the sadness of her conversations with her husband. Ballard is unable, despite his beauty, to look his wife in the eye, to think of her or to make love to her without transiting through a screen object, intermediary lover or homosexual fantasy. This sweetness does not elude the violence and the perversity of the situations described by the film, but it underlines the deep melancholy which emerges from the couple formed by Catherine and Ballard.
The softness of the voices contaminates that of the images and sounds. Slow lateral traveling shots caress the surfaces of anonymous industrial landscapes, car parks or highway ramps, or worse, smoking carcasses of wrecked cars. The haunting music of Howard Shore participates in this state of waking dream. We assist in Crash to the blossoming of a cinematographic writing that Cronenberg had the time to experiment with, from his first “gore” essays to the great films of his maturity such as Fly and False pretenses.
Excerpt from chapter 4 of dreams of steelour dedicated essay Crash which can be found in the Ultra Collector box of David Cronenberg’s masterpiece edited by Carlotta.
Crash airs Monday, January 23 at 11:35 p.m. on ARTE.
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Crash by David Cronenberg – Olivier Père
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