Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Crash offers a stellar technical presentation along with several very substantial supplements from the time of the film’s original release.
The Production: 4.5/5
Long thought to be unfilmable, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash is just as difficult to describe. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one can list every element that appears on the screen without ever getting to the heart of the matter, or one could just as easily describe the emotions it provokes without saying a word of its story. It is a film about characters detached from their own emotions and the reality of their lives, yet one that invites you to have an emotional response and to consider your own world. It operates on feel; it either draws the viewer in or leaves them at arm’s length, and there’s probably no middle ground to be found. Whereas Ballard’s original novel is told in the first person, a highly subjective wild ride from a self-absorbed protagonist, Cronenberg’s film is told more coldly and objectively, presenting the characters without judgment or backstory, which gives the proceedings an almost hypnotic air.
The story, inasmuch as the film has one, involves James and Catherine Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger), a seemingly disconnected couple in an open marriage, only able to find an inkling of a spark as they recount their dalliances to each other, otherwise going through the motions with themselves and their extramarital partners. While driving distracted one evening, James loses control of his car and causes a fatal collision, instantly killing the husband of a woman driver who responds by staring straight at James and exposing her breast to him. While recuperating from a severe leg injury in the hospital, James learns the woman is Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), and the two seem strangely drawn to each other when they have a chance encounter at the impound lot. Their passionate first sex scene is quite a contrast to the dispassionate one that immediately follows with James and Catherine. As James becomes more interested in the feeling of arousal that correspond to the violence of his car crash, he and Dr. Remington find themselves in the orbit of Vaughan (Elias Koteas), an almost cult-like figure obsessed with recreating famous fatal crashes who experiences sexuality in violent bursts tied to his automotive pursuits. Soon Catherine finds herself drawn to Vaughan, as the characters find themselves increasingly lost in their obsessions.
Graphic but not pornographic, Crash uses its many sex scenes in the way a musical might use its songs. Dialogue scenes offer exposition and chances for the characters to present their half-truths and obligatory niceties to each other, but it is within the characters’ sexual encounters that we discover who they really are and how they feel. The performances by the four leads (as well as Rosanna Arquette in a supporting role as one of Vaughan’s followers) are extraordinary in how open and nuanced they are. They use every bit of their physicality, from their eyes to the sound of their breath to the whole of their bodies, to truly reveal these characters. Though there have been several notable mainstream and independent films in the nearly twenty-five years since Crash’s release that have offered graphic depictions of sexuality, no film since has utilized sex scenes as a storytelling device in quite the way Crash has. In most films, the sex scenes are a break in the movie; in Crash, the sex scenes are the movie. One can only hope that another filmmaker as daring as Cronenberg will come along within the next twenty-five years to attempt a comparable feat.
3D Rating: NA
Taken from a new 4K restoration made from the original camera negative under the supervision of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and approved by director Cronenberg, the transfer here is a gigantic upgrade over New Line Cinema’s earlier DVD edition. It is presented in Cronenberg’s preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The transfer accurately reflects the film’s cooler color palette while retaining a very nice film-like texture. A great deal of the film takes place at night, both indoors and out, and the film’s artful use of shadows is well rendered here. Amazingly, the film’s many injury makeup effects aren’t betrayed by the enhanced detail offered. Even the title sequence benefits from the upgrade here; while on the DVD, the text seems to shimmer slightly as if poorly compressed, here on the Blu-ray it’s clear that the text is actually meant to be dented metal, appropriately setting the scene for all that will follow.
The film’s audio is presented in a new 5.1 track presented in the lossless DTS-HD MA format. Originally released in theaters and home video with a matrixed Dolby Surround 2.0 mix, for this release the restoration team went back to the original print master and reconfigured the sound for a modern 5.1 setup, without adding any new elements and while preserving the original mix’s dynamic range. The results invoke the original mix while giving added clarity and presence to Howard Shore’s appropriately atmospheric music. By choosing not to embellish the driving and crash sequences with a more Hollywood-style sound design, each bit of metal clanking or glass cracking comes across as disturbingly real.
Special Features: 4.5/5
For this Blu-ray release, Criterion has gathered several noteworthy recordings contemporary to the film’s original release, helping to place the film within the context of its time. While each feature is a worthwhile inclusion, there is nothing retrospective here examining the film’s controversial original release or how the film is perceived today minus the baggage.
Commentary – Carried over from Criterion’s 1997 Laserdisc, writer/director David Cronenberg offers his insight into the film’s production in a mostly scene-by-scene fashion. Perhaps surprisingly, Cronenberg reveals that the staging of the sex scenes was the least difficult part of the process.
Ballard and Cronenberg (1:41:42) – Taken from a 1996 event at the British Film Institute with original author J.G. Ballard and screenwriter/director David Cronenberg and moderated by Chris Rodley, this lengthy conversation is a very insightful look at how the two artists approached the same material within their very different mediums. Ballard and Cronenberg also have a good sense of humor about themselves and their work, making the nearly two hour talk fly by.
Cannes Press Conference (37:39) – Director David Cronenberg, producers Jeremy Thomas and Robert Lantos, author James Ballard, and actors James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette discuss the film following the film’s 1996 screening at the Cannes Film Festival. (There’s an amusing moment early on when the moderator introduces Cronenberg as “one of the two most twisted brains in cinema today,” prompting Cronenberg to inquire to no avail, “who is the other one?”)
Press Kit Footage (8:37) – Excerpts from the original 1996 electronic press kit are gathered together as a single featurette.
Trailers – The film’s U.S. (1:52) and International (1:31) trailers are presented in 1.33:1 standard definition.
Booklet – Includes an essay by critic Jessica Kiang and information about the film’s transfer.
Criterion’s new edition of David Cronenberg’s Crash is worth the long wait. In addition to looking and sounding better than ever, the selection of bonus features offers remarkable insight into David Cronenberg’s process in making the film, and the controversy that greeted it upon release. While it is slightly disappointing that the disc doesn’t include any present day reflections from the film’s cast or crew, what is included is more than enough to satisfy both newcomers and longtime fans.
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