Did you fantasize that Vaughan was photographing all these sex acts as though they were traffic accidents?
The world’s most controversial film? If you’re looking to keep movie buffs and Conservative party counsellors occupied for a few hours down at your local bar, then you could do worse than lob that question into the mix. Of course, the world’s most controversial film is … going to be determined according to your own perspective and bête-noirs. Perhaps you find blood and gore and horror to be utterly objectionable, in which case something like ‘Last House on the Left’ or ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ might figure high upon your list. Or you might feel that films which sully religious beliefs deserve particular scorn, so ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ or ‘The Devils’ might be top of your inventory.
But if the cinematic depiction of sex is the genre that leaves you gnashing and grinding your teeth, then there’s a fair chance that top of your selections will be ‘Crash‘. David Cronenberg’s 1996 blend of colliding auto-mobiles and deviant sexuality recently came in at #3 in a list of the 10 most controversial films compiled by The Guardian newspaper.
Much has been written about Crash; about its motives and its messages, its art and its merit. Some of what has been written has been praiseworthy, while a good deal of text devoted to the film has been dismissive, if not outright derisive. I don’t intend debating the film, or critiquing it though. This isn’t Film Studies 101. I just want to talk about a sex scene that I happen to find arousing.
And saying that word – arousing – can be a risky thing to do when you’re talking about Crash. Mention the two things in the same sentence in the wrong company, and you might well receive looks only a few degrees removed from those normally reserved for paedophiles and rapists. Crash is a film whose depiction of sexuality bewilders and frightens many viewers, so confessing that there are aspects to it that you find stimulating can be tantamount to painting ‘unclean’ on your forehead. It may have won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but it also provoked the British critic Alexander Walker to call it ‘a movie beyond the bounds of depravity.’
Nevertheless, there are aspects to Crash that I find arousing. As far as I’m concerned, Deborah Kara Unger is an incredibly desirable woman (I fell instantly in lust with her when she showed her red bra to Michael Douglas in The Game) and she exudes a languid, almost hypnotic sexuality throughout the film. Catherine Ballard (Unger’s character) reminds me a little of Kathleen Turner in Body Heat; husky, sexually rapacious, single-minded and with little in the way of conscience. True, Catherine lacks much of Matty Walker’s animation (as well as her murderous plan) but the resonance is there.
And Catherine’s lingerie preference for white suspender belt, tan stockings and no panties happens to be one of my personal favourites too. The sight of her attired just so, wordlessly offering herself to a handsome stranger’s touch in an aircraft hanger is stirring, as is the image of her easing her skirt up her legs, offering her naked buttocks to her husband as she stands on the balcony of their apartment, looking out across the busy freeways below.
There are other stimulating scenes too. Holly Hunter’s utter desperation to shed her clothes and get James Spader inside her for the first time in the back of a car parked at the airport. Vaughn – the character portrayed by Elias Koteas – fucking a prostitute in the back seat of his battered Lincoln motor car while Spader drives them along a succession of near-deserted nocturnal freeways.
But for me, the stand-out scene comes some forty minutes into the film’s running time. Spader and Unger are making love in their bedroom. They’re both naked, lying on their sides, Spader slowly thrusting into his wife from behind. The sex is fluid, leisurely. As the camera slowly advances upon the marital bed, Unger asks her husband a series of questions about Vaughn, the deviant spider who occupies the centre of Crash’s twisted web.
Vaughn becomes the movie’s driving force, the focal point about which the twisted sexual desires of the other characters swirl and coalesce. Catherine Ballard is drawn to him, fascinated by his dark persona, his scarred body, his oversized, rusted Lincoln. ‘He must have fucked a lot of women in that car,’ she breathes. ‘It must smell of semen.’ Her excitement at the thought of Vaughn’s scarred penis – suggested to have been damaged in a motorcycle accident – is evident. She talks to and questions her husband constantly. ‘Is he circumcised? Can you imagine what his anus looks like? Describe it to me.’ She asks Spader if he has fantasised about sodomizing Vaughn, about sucking his cock, if he knows how different the taste of semen can be. It is as much these thoughts as her husband’s thrusts that propel her into orgasm.
It’s not what Catherine Ballard says that I find arousing. It’s the fact that she’s talking, the way that she’s talking that I find engaging, that makes the scene so sensual and erotic in my opinion. The Ballard’s have evidently reached a point in their marriage where vanilla sex has ceased to excite them to the levels it once did, to the levels of experience that they crave, that they need. That’s why the film opens with Catherine being fucked by a stranger in an aircraft hanger, followed immediately by a scene of her husband fucking one of his assistants at work, and then one of the couple together at home, sharing tales of their adventures. They both need something more. And in this scene, it’s Catherine that seeks to elevate their lovemaking to another level; sharing her fantasies openly and explicitly to excite both herself and her husband; engaging their minds and their imaginations to enhance their physical responses. The pleasure of their flesh is in the now, but Catherine spices it with the exciting possibilities of the future. And it’s that willingness, that desire to break through conventional boundaries that I find so appealing. I am both aroused by and made envious of her genuine desire – of their desire – to explore sex so completely together.
For myself, I don’t much enjoy silence during sex. I hate it when I feel obliged to be silent. It makes me feel stifled, choked. I love communicating, telling my lover what I’m going to do to her next, being told what she wants to feel, what she wants to do to me, with me, in return. I love listening to her fantasies, sharing my own, building new and exciting futures together. It takes the experience of lovemaking, of fucking, beyond the purely physical. It enhances it, expands upon it. But it only works if I know that her words, her fantasies are genuine: if she’s going through the motions purely for my benefit, because she knows it’s what I want, then she might as well save her energy.
And that’s why I find Catherine Ballard so appealing, so arousing. Because of the authenticity of her desire, and the way in which she expresses it. So yes, you can put me down for a ride in the passenger seat of Catherine’s MX5 any day.