Obsessive Voyeurism, Passivity and Sexual Transgression in Cronenberg’s CRASH
The mid- to late 90s were a seminal time in my sexual awakening. Growing up queer in a conservative city in a family that was accepting but silent on all things sexual meant that I had to seek out my own source texts for education. As a burgeoning cinephile, that meant latching onto films shown on Showcase, a channel that – at the time – specialized in foreign and independent movies.
One of my most significant memories of this period was a screening of David Cronenberg’s 1996 masterpiece, Crash. Based on the novel by British author James Ballard, Crash is a deeply Canadian film about a man named James Ballard (James Spader) who, after a car accident, slowly becomes enraptured with a group of fetishists who find sexual pleasure in car crashes. The film’s contentious components – it won the Palme D’or at Cannes, and was later banned in the UK – stretched the definitions of artistic taste due to its frank, prolific sex scenes which includes the eventually coupling of every character in the film in some form or another.
It’s not an exaggeration that the film seared itself into my memory. Crash ultimately became a significant text in my life. I have revisited the film multiple times over the years and consider it my favourite Cronenberg film.
Crash is set in Toronto and features white, middle-to-high class, heterosexual married couple James (Spader) and Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) Ballard. The Ballards are in an open relationship: both characters are introduced having sex with other people, then spend the evening recounting their experiences to each other on the balcony of their high-rise apartment, overlooking the busy highways of the city below.
The nature of their discussion suggests that this is not the first time that they have done this. Catherine’s refrain that “maybe next time” they will couple with someone who can make them come infers that the pursuit of sexual gratification with other partners is something of a relationship goal for the Ballards; a Homeric, Odyssey-like scavenger hunt.
It is important to note that despite the controversy surrounding the film’s many, many sex scenes, intercourse in Crash is rarely, if ever, quote/unquote “sexy.” The film boasts a cool blue/grey colour palette and, for the most part, the acting is understated, verging on muted. While characters are constantly talking about or engaging in sexual activity, the sex is not coded as intimate, passionate or (at times) even enjoyable.
That’s because the sex in Crash is not lovemaking.
It is fucking.
The other notable element about the world of Crash is that sex is inextricably linked to death. Immediately after introducing Ballard and Catherine, Cronenberg establishes the connection when Ballard is involved in a head-on collision with another car. The driver is launched from his own vehicle and plunges through Ballard’s windshield, dying instantly on James’ passenger seat. The other individual involved in the crash, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), then inadvertently reveals her left breast as she struggles to unclasp her seatbelt.
Despite being responsible for the accident, the crash confirms Ballard as an observer first and foremost: his literal lack of attention to the road is what sends his car careening over the median and into oncoming traffic. Immediately following the crash, Cronenberg shoots the carnage from Ballard’s seat (it is not exactly a point of view shot, but it is not far off). Ballard is therefore coded as a watcher and aligned with the camera’s perspective; much of what is seen in Crash is what Ballard sees and experiences. From this point on, the film is the narrative of one man’s fatalistic journey as he obsessively succumbing to his new sexual desires.
And obsessive it is. Almost immediately following the crash, Ballard is subsumed by his exploration of symphorophilia, or the sexual arousal of staging or watching tragedy. It begins when Catherine slowly and methodically masturbates him while relaying the incredibly specific details of his fatal crash as he recovers in the hospital. Ballard also allows Vaughan (Elias Koteas) to carefully inspect his body at the hospital and the way the two men look at each other’s scar tissue is erotically charged. Later, Ballard observes a re-enactment of the famous car wreck that killed James Dean and, at one point, he even spends an afternoon watching slow motion crash test dummy footage.
Throughout these experiences, Ballard is engaging in a variety of sexual encounters with both his wife and the other members of Vaughan’s inner circle, including Helen. But the way that sex is visually depicted without passion, the way characters constantly discuss it in frank blasé terms and the interchangeable partners engaging in the carnal activities, these sexual encounters cannot help but feel like a form of disengagement.
The real thrill is in the crash, or the combination of sex and cars. Or, for Ballard, watching it.
Take, for example, a key moment when Vaughan and Ballard proposition a sex worker in an underground parking garage. Vaughan does all of the talking, and while the woman initially seems uncertain and even fearful, Vaughan eventually negotiates her into the back of his vehicle. He then orders Ballard to drive while he engages the woman in sex, all while Ballard eyes the pair in the rearview mirror.
This sequence makes explicit Ballard’s character arc and the film’s central thesis: Crash is the story of a passive man’s obsessive sexual (and fatalistic) journey towards agency…and death. The closer Ballard comes to embracing his agency, the closer he gets to death. This is embodied in the figure of Vaughan, the most active character in the film, the one who directs (at times literally) the action and, most importantly, the man who acts as Ballard’s doppelganger.
Ballard and Vaughan are shadow characters. Ballard is hesitant, soft-spoken and observant. Vaughan is brash, assertive and dominant. Ballard is blond, fair and his body is relatively scar-free. Vaughan, by comparison, is dark and heavily scarred. They are the before and after; Vaughan represents all that Ballard can – and will - become should he continue on the path of sex and death following his accident with Helen.
This is most evident in the sequence when Vaughan, Ballard and Catherine come across a multi-car crash on the highway in the middle of the night. Vaughan orders Ballard to slow the car down, then stop completely so that he can take photos of the wreckage and the victims. At several different times Vaughan positions Catherine in a certain way in order to create his own unique images – blending the authenticity of the crash with the performativity of a snuff video or a pin-up. This is Vaughan literally directing the action: he is recreating the world and its players in the way that he sees fit.
The sequence only ends when Vaughan discovers that the origin of the wreck is his friend Seagrave (Peter MacNeil), the stunt car driver from the James Dean recreation earlier in the film. Naturally Vaughan’s reaction is not one of grief or sorrow, but rather disappointment that Seagrave did not wait for him. Vaughan’s disembodied language - “You couldn’t wait for me?” - evokes a sense of sexual dissatisfaction that, when partnered with close-up images of Seagrave’s bloodied wig on the ground and the smear of blood on the car door, clearly confirms the sexual agency = death discourse of the film.
Following this sequence, Vaughan rapes Catherine in the back of his car while James looks on from the driver’s seat (a more aggressive recreation of the earlier sequence with the sex worker). The assault is carefully framed by Cronenberg so that the car seats, the sweeping cloths of the car wash and James’ own perspective mask the more vulgar components, but Vaughan’s forceful posturing and Catherine’s vocal cries clearly connote what is occurring.
Importantly this is the first time that Catherine is seen resisting sex. While she never acts in the highly eroticized fashion that is commonplace in films and TV shows, in each of her previous sexual encounters, Catherine was a willing participant. With Vaughan, this is not the case and the bruises on her body in the scene immediately thereafter confirm it. The assault, not coincidentally, foreshadows the final scene of the film when Ballard runs his wife off the road and has intercourse with her splayed, injured body.
Before and during Vaughan’s rape of Catherine, Ballard is almost exclusively an observer, though an earlier scene when he casually stalks his wife on the highway indicates that his obsession with both car crashes and Vaughan’s aggressive techniques are escalating. Ballard’s passive status only truly changes, however, when he succumbs to Vaughan’s advances and the two men have sex.
Ballard assumes the role of the top, penetrating Vaughan in the film’s shortest sex scene, an encounter that was foreshadowed/predicted by Catherine earlier (ironically in the film’s longest sex scene). The designation of roles is intriguing in its societal connotations, which commonly (and incorrectly) associates the penetrated partner as the weaker, feminine role. Following this logic, by topping Vaughan, Ballard graduates from the “passive” role to the “active” role. It theoretically also places Ballard and Vaughan on the same level or even gives Ballard power over his double (who it should be noted, willingly submits in what can also be argued is Cronenberg and Crash’s dismissal of antiquated sex shaming beliefs about gay sex).
Regardless of which reading audiences adopt, the relationship and the level of violence between the doppelgangers irrevocably changes following the encounter.
What occurs next can be read alternatively as the next phase of an obsessive seduction or an escalation of the violent sexual posturing between two rivals (or both). Almost immediately Vaughan attempts to run Ballard and Catherine off the road, but, in an unexpected development, Vaughan crashes his car and abruptly dies (this also raises questions about the proximity of the queer sex and death in the film, but that is a consideration for another day).
Minus the key antagonist and driving player in the drama, Ballard and Catherine move quickly to fill the void by procuring Vaughan’s symbolically phallic car from the impound lot. They then replicate Vaughan’s violent driving behaviour, with Ballard replacing his doppelganger in the driver’s seat. That the film ends with yet another dramatic crash and a sex scene immediately thereafter, replete with the exact same dialogue from the balcony at the start of the film, suggests that this “unsuccessful” crash is merely the next stage of the Ballards’ fatalistic odyssey towards sexual gratification.
Presumably from now on Ballard will play a much more active – and dangerous – role in facilitating their sexual obsession. The sexual discourse has escalated once again, bringing both Ballard and Catherine one step closer to fulfillment…and death. “Next time” Ballard breathes in Catherine’s ear as he fucks her on the grassy knoll next to the wreck.
With encounters like this, however, there likely won’t be many more “times” left.
At its core, Crash is distinctively about a voyeuristic white male protagonist who, more often than not, is not truly an active agent in his own salacious narrative. James Ballard may be a high-powered film director, but his narrative arc over the course of the film is akin to an unfulfilled sociologist explorer, tentatively venturing outside of his safe, privileged cocoon in order to observe and analyze the behaviour of others. At times Ballard trepidatiously engages in the lived experience of his subjects, but his primary default is observation, the collecting of visual information.
In this way Ballard’s role in the narrative mirrors his vocation: he is a proxy cameraman and an audience stand-in, a reflection of and surrogate for the leering eyes of filmgoers watching the quote/unquote outrageous, offensive film that shocked and appalled sensible audiences. The result is a humourous metatextual ouroboros wherein Crash – a cold, desexualized film that has been reconfigured as a controversial text dripping in sexual discourse - reflects the leering attention of the voyeuristic audience that has eagerly turned up to watch and get off.
In Crash, everything and nothing is about sex, especially Ballard’s obsessive attempts to move from passive to active agent in his own life. It takes him nearly the entire two-hour runtime (and countless life and death situations) to learn the simplest truth: life is like a car accident – it is filled with nothing but crashes and everyone’s getting rammed.
Joe Lipsett is a TV addict with a background in Film Studies. He writes for Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream, That Shelf, The Spool and Grim Magazine. He co-hosts two podcasts: Horror Queers, about queer perspectives in horror films, and Hazel & Katniss & Harry & Starr, about YA book-to-film adaptations. For more on Joe, visit his website QueerHorrorMovies.com.