The Cars Have It

By Steyn, Mark | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Cars Have It


Steyn, Mark, The Spectator


Like a Number 73 bus, Crash has finally turned up. In Canada, it played unobtrusively at art-houses for months; in America, where it was released a couple of months back, it quietly dribbled away. But only in Britain has it driven media, censors and local government drones into a frenzy, even though the row seems even more out of proportion to the film itself than it did last year.

If only Crash were that exciting. Adapted by David Cronenberg from J.G. Ballard's 1973 novella, the film updates the sex'n'wrecks to the Nineties and relocates from the North Circular Road to Toronto's Highway 401 and Queen Elizabeth Way. The story concerns James and Catherine Ballard, a couple of Canadian swingers who fall in with a group of auto-philiacs when James (James Spader) crashes into an oncoming car and kills the driver, though not his wife. With her dead spouse beside her, Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) flashes a breast at James, apparently under the impression that this is the universally recognised Province of Ontario Highway Code pictogram for `May I see your insurance?'

In a porn movie, 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 increasingly affect a kind of inertia somewhere between sophisticated ennui and a general anaesthetic. Even so, the auto-erotic automatons of Crash break new ground in glassy-eyed torpor. Thus, the film begins with Deborah Kara Unger, as Spader's wife, being humped against an aeroplane engine. The last time I saw Deborah Kara Unger in a movie she was called Deborah Unger. Perhaps she added the 'Kara' as a sign of solidarity with the film's other principal sexual participants - the cars. Whatever the reason, she is a quintessential David Cronenberg player - controlled, measured, trance-like, a rental car 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 hooker trying to recall in reverse order the governorsgeneral of Canada since 1867 but unable to get past the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. 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 an Austin Princess stuck in contraflow on the Hangar Lane Giratory System. If a watched kettle never boils, so a watched Deborah Kara Unger sex scene never climaxes. …

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