I like Crash. No, not the dopey Oscar-winning film about racism. I'm talking about the awesome 1996 David Cronenberg movie with James Spader and Holly Hunter, the one where people drive around intentionally causing car accidents and then having sex amidst the broken glass and twisted metal with whomever happens to be riding shotgun. I like it because it's icy and detached, because its women and men are numbed and fearful and bold and rueful and scared and horny and possibly out of their minds, because it's about people pushing themselves into the future, even if the future itself isn't so crazy about that idea.
Now, imagine Crash as a period picture, a big-lady-hat-and-corset-and-handlebar-mustache-and-pipe-smoking Merchant Ivory movie (in this case it's Sigmund Freud's cigar, but you get me). All the polite manners, early 20th century morally upright posturing, letter-writing and tea drinking colliding its naughty bits with mental illness, neck-snapping seizures, scientific rivalries and naked spanking sessions. Sounds like the perfect trick to play on your grandmother when she wants you to take her to a nice movie with that pretty Keira Knightley, doesn't it?
Well, it sort of is. It's also three films competing for attention. One of them is about the real life relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his 18-year-old patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman who would, after years in analysis, go on to become a psychiatrist herself. Spielrein is too smart, too rebellious and too bat$#*! insane to function, wrecked with "hysteria" over a childhood of beatings and humiliation at the hands of her domineering father. And when Jung discovers that she associates these beatings with sex, he starts spanking her. Therapeutically, of course.
A parallel storyline involves Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) developing a professional and personal relationship based around Spielrein's case. They hang out some, take a boat ride together, go to America for a visit, but mostly they sit around and engage in long-winded, stuffy (okay, also boring) disagreements about psychoanalysis, with Jung determined to push the boundaries of rational thought and Freud not giving an inch on the corrupting influence of spirituality on science or the questionable ethics of having wild S&M sex with your patients or, most importantly, the vital importance of being seen as the total boss of everybody.
Finally, it's the story of David Cronenberg as a director who can cross genre barriers but who maintains a commitment to examining the way the body rules the brain and/or the brain rules the body, the ways in which human beings decide to dive into their own messy minds and shape their own existences.
It may sound too clinical, but Cronenberg often likes to throw at least one defiantly unruly woman into the mix to heat things up, and that's where the man's wild streak shows itself. It's Samantha Eggar's mutant-spawning body in The Brood or Crash's Rosanna Arquette as a sassy leg wound fetishist or, here, Keira Knightley giving a going-for-it performance that turns her from dangerous patient to damaged doctor, the kind of Oscar nomination-getting overdo that'll be seen as wildly wrongheaded by some people and excellently deranged by others, myself included. But no matter where you land on the efficacy of her antics, she leaves an impression and comes off as a kind of madwoman feminist. And that's probably the point. Anybody can rip off the corset. Shred it and turn it into a new article of clothing entirely? That's how you take it to the next level.