David Cronenberg begins his film Crash, based on the novel by JG Ballard, with perhaps the purest iteration of the meet cute. He has James Spader, as film producer James Ballard, lose control of the wheel and collide directly with another car, that vehicle throwing its male passenger through both the original window and into his car. Remaining in the opposite car is Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), still strapped in by her seatbelt. While pulling at the seatbelt that has her harnessed in the car, she reveals an exposed treat — that her sports jacket covers only her bare body. The two lock eyes with one another through the shattered front window pane. It’s like love at first sight.
What is love, what is sex and desire, if not the collision of bodies together? Cronenberg has us not identify with his characters, exactly, but with the bodies in the film; the bodies of his characters, and the bodies his characters inhabit, and the bodies within bodies. The language we use to talk about cars is not dissimilar to how we talk about the human form: the way the car looks, feels, sounds, the gender we assign cars. We even assign an eroticism to cars and to driving. When Cronenberg places his camera behind the wheel, we feel reduced to the most erotically mechanical essence, that colliding with another body will change us emotionally, mentally, physically. A dent, a stitch, they both have texture.
These are damaged bodies within bodies to be damaged. Masses whose functionality seems incomplete. Between James and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), their sex is mediocre, striving for euphoria but achieving pleasure more from their discussion of their other sexual encounters outside of their immediate marriage. Even when James has sex with another person, he does not seem to reach the same heightened experience as when he is torn apart, locked, reshaped by the car crash.
He falls in with Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a man as intrigued and aroused by car crashes (and car crash history) as he is, if not dramatically moreso. He stages them as spectacles, trauma as a showcase. Damage as practice. With Vaughn, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), and Helen, the four of them pursue their perversion, trying to catch a dragon. All the while, Catherine supports he husband in his desire to unlock his newfound lascivious interest. That’s love.
Cronenberg focuses much time on his female characters’ breasts, his male actors’ sucking at them, reminiscent of child breastfeeding. In this way, the car turns to a womb and these characters are reborn, transformed by their destruction, their core intact, but their form radically changed. They are unlocked by being broken and re-broken. From the mangled skeleton, they rise, Cronenberg’s camera with them, from the debris as something new.
“Maybe the next one,” James tells Catherine at the end, their bodies spooning one another after Catherine ran off the road, crawling out from her overturned car. They look into each other’s eyes. That’s love. Crash understands what love and sex are about at their most basic forms: impact. Bodies making sudden, irrevocable, earth shaking impact.