Crash (1996): Cronenberg’s Controversial, Disputed Erotic Thriller (Masterpiece in My View)

Canadian maestro David Cronenberg, one of the most audacious filmmakers around, directed and scripted Crash, a highly-charged erotic psychological thriller, based on J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name.

The tale centers on a film producer (James Spader) as he becomes involved with a group of symphorophiliacs–sexually aroused by car crashes.

The film co-stars Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, and Rosanna Arquette, all in top form.

The film generated heated controversy upon its release and opened to mixed and highly divergent reactions from critics. While some praised the film for its daring premise and originality, others criticized its combination of graphic sexuality and violence.

It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received the Special Jury Prize, a unique award that is distinct from the Jury Prize; it is not given annually. When then jury president Francis Ford Coppola announced the award “for originality, for daring and for audacity,” he stated it had been a controversial choice and that certain jury members, “did abstain very passionately.”

Critical Status

It received six Genie Awards from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, including awards for Cronenberg as director and screenwriter; the film was also nominated for Best Picture.

Narrative Premise

Film producer James Ballard and his detached wife Catherine are engaged in an open marriage. While the couple has various trysts, their own sex is unexciting. In fact, they get aroused by discussing intimate details of their extramarital sex.

Catherine recounts sex with a stranger in a prop plane hangar, which left her unsatisfied. When James replies he did not achieve satisfaction during his sexual encounter with his coworkers, Catherine says, “maybe the next one”.

While driving home from work late one night, James’s car collides head-on with another, killing its male passenger. While trapped in the fused wreckage, Dr. Helen Remington, the driver and the dead passenger’s wife, exposes a breast to James.

Trying to understand why they are so aroused by car wrecks, they go to one of Vaughan’s cult meetings/performance pieces, during which he recreates the car crash that killed James Dean in 1955–with authentic stunt drivers.