David Cronenberg, Canada, 1996

When this film first shocked everyone at Cannes 25(!) years ago, someone asked J. G. Ballard, the author of the book it’s based on, what was the best way to see the film. His reply: In a car going at 100 miles an hour.

This anecdote comes from an introduction to this re-release from David Cronenberg himself, sat in a Tesla, who hints that he may well do just that. Certainly when I got the coach* a couple of days later, the journey by road was a slightly different experience, coloured by remembered images and a new sense of what might happen when driving on the motorway.

Thankfully, going to work was nothing like the film, which is rather graphic. The bunch of characters – it’s one of those films, like an old film noir, where you can’t imagine them as real people with actual lives – get off (sexually) on car crashes. Injuries and twisted metal. The explosive energy of destruction. Very kinky.

It felt surprisingly not dated. There is a lot of cigarette smoking and a bit too much pervy female nudity. I’m not sure a film like this so purely about sex would get made today. Yet its fascination with physical deformity and destruction is really haunting and the women aren’t just the objects of sexual desire but active subjects. The three main female actors (Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, and Rosanna Arquette) are strong and memorable.

There’s very little emotion here, and Cronenberg creates a world full of metal and concrete and jangling sounds. Life isn’t worth much to these people; all they seek is the next sexy pleasure hit.

This was a film I’d seen before but for the first time in a cinema. As usual, being on a big screen, in a dark room, with all-enveloping sound elevated it to an experience rather than a couple of hours of mere diversion. I’m left unsure what the film is trying to say, but it is something and it is more than shock. The atmosphere really stayed with me. Maybe its message is that a life (and sex) with no warmth and no love – like a world only made of concrete freeways and high-rise flats – is a poor one.

*once a week I travel to a car factory half an hour away to teach.

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