With the Canadian election less than 48 hours away, I thought we should have a maple-flavored movie for our Saturday film feature. This Crash is not the American Oscar-winner from 2004 but a far more enjoyable Canadian romp from the previous decade. It's about people who get turned on by multiple-vehicle pile-ups, which seems vaguely metaphorically appropriate to Monday's vote:
Crash was a big hit in Canada, a big nothing in America, and a scandal du jour in Britain. In 1996, the chairman of Westminster Council's film-licensing sub-committee deemed three scenes "not acceptable. Not by my committee", including the sequence in which James Spader has sex with Rosanna Arquette in her leg braces. In the course of the film, Mr Spader has sex with anything that moves - women, men, a 1963 Lincoln Continental... But, granted that, he treats the crippled Miss Arquette exactly as he does his other sexual partners: he is, in that sense, admirably non-discriminatory; he is turned on by her for who she is, and I would have thought, on balance, the "handicapped" lobby (as they were then known) would have welcomed that.
But that's for individual moviegoers to argue. Many leftie columnists demanded to know: Who is this man from the council sub-committee to decide which characters the male lead in a motion picture can have sex with? They're the same leftie columnists, by the way, who think it's perfectly fine for chaps on sub-committees to decide what you can and can't say about Islam. If only David Cronenberg had thought to show James Spader having sex with Rosanna Arquette in a burqa.
But I digress. Crash is based on a 1973 novella by J G Ballard. Compared to the film, Ballard's book is far more single-minded, not to say gynecological: the protagonist - a man called Ballard - spends much of his time getting in and out of his wife's Vulva; you can imagine my embarrassment when the salesman explained to me that this wasn't a popular Swedish family car and that I might be more suited to an Audi Wankel. The novella is of its time: seen from today, Ballard's protagonists are a couple of quaintly dated Seventies swingers from the days of British Layland. Updating the sex'n'wrecks to 1996 and transferring it from London's North Circular Road and Hangar Lane Giratory System to Toronto's 401 and Queen Elizabeth Way, David Cronenberg can't quite disguise the preposterousness of his principals. Yet, given an unpromising starting point, he deserves credit for being the first film-maker to take the two staples of Hollywood movies - sex scenes and car crashes - and, drawing the logical conclusion, combine them brilliantly. It's a hypnotic but oddly convincing portrait of the descent of hitherto conventional libertines into deeper and darker sexual obsessions, from turning each other on to U-turning each other on at the height of rush hour.
I was impressed that Crash became an Outrage of the Month in Westminster. I'd seen it in Quebec ages before and never gave it another thought. It did very nicely and won the usual obscure local prizes - the Golden Reel at the 1996 Genies, etc. But, other than that, the streets were calm. My editor at the Telegraph or Speccie in London asked me to report back on the controversy. So one afternoon I stood on the corner of Montreal's boulevard de Maisonneuve, a block from where the movie was playing, and asked the first 20 people if they'd heard of it: Nineteen said no, and the 20th stroked the trunk of his Ford Probe and gave me a come-hither look. Small Film In Canada; Not Many Hurt.
So a Canadian movie doesn't lead to increased depravity - or not without the massed ranks of the British press jumping on the bandwagon and taking it for a joyride. I generally agreed with Sir Peregrine Worsthorne's line that the eroticism of car crashes was only a modest evolution from the widespread public tendency to gawp at terrible disasters. On the other hand, if the public supposedly likes to gawp at terrible disasters, how come the CBC's audience is so low?
But I digress again. James and Catherine Ballard are a couple of Canadian swingers who fall in with a group of, er, auto-eroticists when James (James Spader) crashes into an oncoming car and kills the driver, though not his wife. With her dead husband beside her, Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) flashes a breast at James, apparently under the impression that this is the universally recognized Ontario Highway Code pictogram for "May I see your insurance?"
It's not quite the wild ride the censors made it out to be. In conventional old-school Euro-porn, the actors at least pretend to be whipped up: "Ooh, ja, baby, that pipphole bra rilly turns me on", etc. But in art-house erotica the participants affect a kind of inertia somewhere between sophisticated ennui and a general anesthetic. Even so, the autophiliac automatons of Crash break new ground in glassy-eyed torpor. Everyone speaks in slow, deliberate erotic whispers, even when they're on the 401 with 18 deafening lanes of the roaring traffic's boom all around.
The mistress of this technique is Deborah Kara Unger, as Spader's wife, who opens the film by getting humped against an aeroplane engine. The Unger Games are not, alas, as lively as that sounds. The last time I saw Deborah Kara Unger in a movie she was called Deborah Unger. Perhaps she added the "Kara" in tribute to her most erotic line of dialogue. "Car.... Uh...." Whatever the reason, she is a quintessential David Cronenberg player - controlled, measured, trance-like, a mid-size rental on cruise control in an empty parking-lot. In all the many sex scenes she plays, she always looks the same - bored out of her head with the distant but mildly distracted expression of an overbooked call-girl making a mental note to pick up some meringue nests at Loblaw's on the way home. Cronenberg arranges her private parts as if they're still lifes, and they sit there on the screen for what seems like forever, occasionally inching forward like a Honda Civic stuck in contraflow on the Don Valley Parkway. If a watched kettle never boils, so a watched Deborah Kara Unger sex scene never climaxes. Whether hugging her on the hard shoulder after a car crash or rear-ending her in their apartment, James Spader clings on awkwardly, as if to a blow-up doll - on which Miss Unger's interpretation of her role seems to have been modeled, at least to the extent that her eyes never seem to be pointing in quite the right direction.
It is, in its way, a magnificent performance. Cronenberg had been trying for years to make the first wholly lobotomized motion picture but unfortunate misjudgments of casting had usually wound up humanizing the film - think of what The Fly could have been like without Jeff Goldblum. In Miss Unger, Cronenberg at last found his perfect on-screen alter-ego. By comparison with the glacial Canuck, her co-stars Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette, no matter how valiantly they struggle to suppress their natural perkiness, come on like manic cheerleaders. Miss Hunter, straddling Spader in the front of his car, thrusts up and down with the grimly earnest air of someone plodding through a prescribed daily workout. Meanwhile, Rosanna Arquette gives the same performance she's given in every film since Desperately Seeking Susan, except that this time, as a badly-scarred crash victim, she's in leg-irons and matching fishnets, underneath which can be glimpsed strange vagina-like wounds - sort of Desperately Seeking Sutures. As she clanks about, Spader finds himself incredibly turned on and eventually sweet-talks her into the back of the car at the scrapyard where he has penetrative sex with one of her wounds. For all the deft ease with which he wedges her lifeless legs into position, you can't help feeling that, in a real automobile, her left foot would have set off the rear windshield wiper and her right the Bert Kaempfert Greatest Hits cartridge on the eight-track.
But it's a David Cronenberg picture, so everything remains stationary. Characters sit silently in cars, communicating only in random, hissed pseudo-poetic observations. I'd like to think the film's lack of success in America was due to the public's innate instinct for bollocks: they know that car crashes aren't erotic, and that the best motion picture in the world can't convince you otherwise. Alternatively, it may simply be that in Hollywood the premise is entirely incomprehensible to studio execs who live in a town where the highway department has perfected a traffic-control system that makes it increasingly unlikely you'll ever get out of second gear.