David Cronenberg

Jeppe Hein, Space in Circles, 2022


Considerations on the work of the Canadian filmmaker

“Disease is the love of two alien creatures for each other” (David Cronenberg).

Those who follow David Cronenberg's cinema know how his images are crossed by bodies animated by a jouissance that takes them to the limits of decomposition. They are bodies in continuous mutation of their forms, their limits, their properties. Bodies that become objects of intervention of all kinds, of multiple utopias of junction between the machinic and the human, but interventions that are normally works of chance or express the non-submission of jouissance to the will, express the continuous maladjustment of machines.

That's why in so many moments we come across in his films the classic topic of mutation that gets out of control. As if there were something on the order of an impossible encounter that not only transforms, but puts the bodies in a wandering dynamic that must at all times deal with impulses towards self-destruction.

This self-destruction appears as destiny, in several moments of his films, because there is no current social order that can give rise to the non-submission of bodies. There are multiple scenes in his films that show the quest to create social ties that are placed on the sidelines of hegemonic social life. The community of car accident enthusiasts from crash, the group of video game players, from eXistenZ, the catholic church of video dome.

There are always new bonds that are not sustained for long because we ourselves are part of what should be destroyed. What does Max Renn, the protagonist of videodrome, shows at the end of the film, when, in a kind of assumption of a political-theological mission, he enunciates: “Long live the new flesh”, raises the gun he has in his hands and shoots himself in the head.


The displaced use of shapes

This awareness that we are the place where the violent gesture of rejection of ourselves operates permeates, mainly, the form of his cinema or, even, permeates Cronenberg's relationship with cinema. What is presented in the dimension of the concept is also realized in the multiple dimensions of form. Because we know how, to a large extent, Cronenberg went down in the history of cinema as someone who took to the extreme what we could call the displaced use of forms.

The vast majority of his films develop by pushing the limits of forms established by the tradition of cinema history. They take advantage of worn-out narrative structures of genres such as horror, action film or science-fiction in order to pervert their central references. As Cronenberg himself says: “I 'protected' my films through genre”.

In this sense, the best example remains the film The fly: one remake apparently banal of one of the classics of the genre and which becomes the story of the slow agony of the loss of identity through the mutation of the body, driven by the emergence of a jouissance that unfolds on the threshold of confusion between humanity and animality. In the film, we follow scientist Seth Brundle as he begins with the desire to dematerialize his body and teleport it. This desire for dematerialization will be the trigger for a process in which we see the protagonist go from the euphoria of the encounter with a never-before-seen enjoyment until the awareness of that enjoyment is accompanied by a continuous decomposition of himself and his expulsion from the world of humans.

The body that once seemed capable of being dematerialized strips itself naked in its brute animal becoming. Once again, there will be nothing left but suicide. An unknown 1979 film, Chromosome III / The Brood, also takes this logic to the extreme. A psychiatrist makes his patients somatize their anger and frustration. Nola, who has just gotten divorced, goes one step further and gives birth to a series of murderous little monsters who take revenge on her family members. With this B-movie script, Cronenberg creates a sort of laboratory-produced Medea that reveals, in maternity, a raw form of horror.

In a way, we can say that we know at least two hegemonic and antagonistic strategies of the critical way to operate in the cinematographic field. The first can be found in names like Godard, Straub-Huillet, Alain Resnais, but also in another form in a tradition that has its most expressive names in Luís Buñuel and Raoul Ruiz. It consists of taking cinematographic language to its extreme, freeing narrativity from a cumulative and teleological vector, with its causal structures of beginning, middle and end.

Take the case of Resnais. His is a statement like: “When I watch a film, I am interested in the game of feelings more than in the characters. I imagine that we can arrive at a cinema without psychologically defined characters, in which the game of feelings would circulate. As in a contemporary painting, the play of forms becomes stronger than history” (Resnais, 1961).

To enter this game in ways stronger than history, in this circuit of affections that cannot be thought of from psychologically defined characters, it is enough to remember Last year in Marienbad. Like him, Resnais provided us with an image of a world in which we were no longer subjects, at least in the traditional sense we give to that term. We no longer embodied ourselves in characters carrying narratives full of psychological conflicts that seemed to be described in a Balzac novel.

We no longer inhabit the linear time of a story, but simultaneous time, in which past, present and future were continually collapsing. A time within which one does not progress, but in which one circulates. Time in which the circulation of the game of affections produces repetitions that make us repeat the same gestures, speak the same words to, only in this way, inhabit several instants.

This repetition, which intrigues more than one spectator Marienbad, it is the search for imperceptible movements that would announce another perception. This world of other times and movements, which was presented in a large hotel, which could also be a sanatorium or a thermal spa, was a farewell gesture to the ideas that had stuck in us, shaping our way of seeing and filming. . Ideas that produced our cinema.

Of course, this is not the model of critical form that animates David Cronenberg's cinematographic trajectory. As film critic Serge Grunberg will remember, with David Cronenberg we entered a moment in the history of cinema in which the substance of what was the “B movie” becomes, for commercial reasons, the dominant material (Grunberg, 2000, p. 32 ). These so-called B movies (horror, pornography, science fiction) seem to be the most direct transposition or, if you like, a more direct industrial intervention in the subjects' libidinal circuit.

If the new wave was characterized, among other things, by its elaboration based on the clichés of Hollywood cinema (Breathless, by Jean-Luc Godard, is a privileged example in this sense), everything happens as if David Cronenberg represented an operation that goes deeper, that captures the underground of cinematographic production. Underground that is, in fact, the axis of film production as a business. To give you an idea, according to data from WebRoot, 68 million searches a day are made in the US alone to access pornographic films. An industry that mobilizes US$ 97 billion per year. By way of comparison, the biggest profit provided by a film in the history of cinema comes from Avengers: Endgame e Avatar with US$ 2,7 billion.

Thus, David Cronenberg's creation process will apparently consist of preserving the cinematographic language, using elements coming directly from the most industrialized and fetishized sectors of his production. eXitenZ appropriates the universe of videogames, Videodrome appropriates the snuff movies and puts Debbie Harry, the singer of blonde, as a sadomasochistic protagonist. There are several films that depart from the universe of horror cinema. Who saw it Rabid perhaps you remember the lead actress, Marilyn Chambers: the same one from the orgies of Behind the green door, the first box office hit, along with Deep Throat, of the then emerging pornographic industry.

But this preservation is actually aimed at exposing how film language is sick. Hence Grünberg’s idea of ​​saying that, with David Cronenberg, we find the “great sick cinema” (Ibid., P. 35). In this regard, it is worth remembering rabid, from 1977 because it is, above all, a kind of revenge, of cinematic reversal. Years before, Chambers had been kidnapped, taken to a club called Green Door, to end up getting rid of her resistance and participating in an orgy in which she was penetrated by everyone.

Em rabid, she undergoes surgery that will end up providing her with a kind of violent penis that comes out of a cavity in her armpit and penetrates everyone's body, instilling an uncontrollable thirst for blood. “The” porn actress now inverts the roles, leaves her original scene and, while enjoying herself, contaminates everyone with the lack of control that cannibalism reaches. As if the global industrialization of sex produced by the advent of the porn industry hardcore in the early seventies, as if this repressive desublimation that now no longer needed to hide in darkened rooms was necessarily going to produce something that the fetishized images would no longer be able to control.

This strategy, which we can find in other filmmakers such as David Lynch, consists of recognizing that such industrialized linguistic patterns, that is, constituents of the cultural industry's most widely circulated nuclei, are not only the expression of the stereotype of forms, but also and mainly the grammar that socially inscribes our desires, that socially produces our fantasies. Therefore, a possible strategy of the critical form will consist of producing estrangement in this grammar that initially seems so familiar to our desire.

Making it be crossed by a jouissance that explodes its limits, which continually produces monstrosities and anomalies. As if it were a case of mimicking the way biological life actually works: producing monsters and anomalies at all times. Using the hands of contingency to create encounters that are invitations to symbiosis.[I] Until such monstrosities become the embryo for the development of new forms. Because, after all, as a protagonist of Shivers: “Disease is the love of two alien creatures for each other.”


Figures of unsubmissive bodies

In this sense, it is not by chance that the most sensitive point of this industrial grammar of our desires concerns exactly sexuality and that it is exactly through this path that anomalies begin and spread. A bit like the protagonists of Gemini, who are pushed out of their controlled circuits by gynecologists and researchers of the female body due to their encounter with Claire Niveau, a woman who has a rare anomaly in the uterus and an explosive sadomasochistic sexuality. This meeting modifies the sharing system and personality distinctions between the two twin brothers, leads them to a struggle between losing control of themselves and the violent attempt to restore control, even if it means remodeling the female body through surgical instruments to mutant women. In the end, the two brothers break down and commit suicide.

Let us remember how in these films there is no room for eroticism, with its tacit agreements in search of an ever more complete and harmonious pleasure. Pleasure submits to calculation, adjustment, conscious enunciation and self-care. What we have here is, on the contrary, something that always ends up breaking that economic order. In fact, there is not even room for something similar to pornography with its functionalization and ritualization of sexual images.

A fact that Jacques Rancière understood very well when he said, regarding Crash: “By denying the pornographic label applied to his film, David Cronenberg opposes his sexual scenes to the usual stories of love and seduction in cinema, which at the bottom, he says, are scenes of rape. We might reply that the love story has this, in fact, in common with sadistic cruelty, that it is always, however small, founded on the inequality of two desires. What instead defines the pornographic scene is the assumption that the acts of one are precisely the object of the other's desire. Thus, pornography illustrates in its own way the liberal version of the social contract. This is because it develops its visual empire at the pace of the evolution of consensual neoliberalism” (Rancière, 1997).

There is a symptomatic anecdote about this. At the beginning of his career, David Cronenberg needed money and decided to audition to film erotic films. Some time later, the producer calls him in the corner and says, a little embarrassed: “We know that you have a very developed sense of sexuality, we just don't know what type it is”. What could not be different, since we see, in fact, an obscene enjoyment, but in a radically different sense of “obscenity”. Not in the supposedly moral sense, but in the visual sense: something outside the scene, something that does not compose a scene, something that breaks this “liberal version of the social contract” with its economy of production. Something that, in fact, is profoundly unproductive, pushes subjects into the field of anti-production.

In a way, such a collapse occurs because, as David Cronenberg will say in an interview dedicated to the dissemination of Crash: "sex is a potent force with no purpose". By being inhabited by this potent purposeless force, since we have known since Freud that sex only submits to reproduction imperatives after a long process through which infantile polymorphism is organized from genital primacy, bodies will be insubmissive. Because there is no possible place of existence for something without purpose in a society marked by the extensive functionalization of everything, everyone. But the question that perhaps remains is: where will the unsubmissive bodies go? Where can they live?

Let us note that this is an issue that, in a way, brings Cronenberg's tragic cinema closer to what would be its opposite, namely, burlesque cinema. In both cases, the central character is always an unsubmissive body, even if the expressive regimes of this unsubmissiveness are different. Take, for example, the case of Jacques Tati. I remember this case because it would be interesting to gradually constitute a typology of insubmissive bodies.

In Tati, there is always a body that does not submit to the functional gestures of the world of work, that refuses to submit to industrial machinery, even if it is constantly around with repetitions that assert themselves in their non-submission to functions. This is the central object of her films. A body that has no place, which is why it is constantly throwing everything out of order, stumbling over the scenery, destroying everything around it in a rage that is both violent and hilarious. Body producing generalized chaos. The only place where this body lives without destroying the environment around it is outside the world of work, the circulation of goods, services. It happens, in fact, in the order of interactions of the popular classes, already anarchic in its normal functioning.

In this sense, let us remember what Serge Daney says about classic cinema: “The scenography of classic cinema consisted of placing obstacles in the studio, then the lights, then rails for the camera and, lastly, the actors. The great actors of this cinema are simply those who run into obstacles the least. Or that they do like Cary Grant, with an elegance whose secret, this one, too, is lost” (Daney, 2007, p. 230).

Starting from this point, Dalila Martins will remember how burlesque cinema is nothing more than the art of tripping over the scenery, of being an anti-Cary Grant. For the classicism of secured places, of safe and integral visibility was based on an illusion that the brutality of the Second War definitively shattered. That is why another regime of images will be constituted, of which a cinema like Tati's is a part.

The cinema of the fury of, at all times, knocking down the scenery, destroying places, exposing that the scenery, with its order of things, is a very limiting skin. And it is about doing this with the childish fury of someone who, at the same time, knocks everything down and knows how to make the world not turn against itself, of someone who destroys everything and still knows how to win the world's complacency. Because this insubmissive body always poses as the harmless figure of the “aggregate”, of those who live with little, of those who preserve themselves on the margins, of those who build unusual bonds with others, knowing how to awaken in them the childish desire for a time without function and no production.

And it will not be the least of ironies to realize how Tati, due to her physical size, height and mannerisms, resembled the official body of power, namely, that of Charles De Gaulle who, at the time, embodied the monarchical dimension of the republic. As if it were a case of creating a quasi-double that made us see the body of power as something laughable.

It is clear that David Cronenberg's non-submission is of a different nature, in the same way as the modality of the bonds that are woven from such non-submission is another. Something of this nature can be explained if we remember statements like: “It is necessary that I transform the word into flesh”. Through this statement, David Cronenberg defines the essence of his cinema. A statement that must be understood in all its rigor. Behind the body, there is the flesh, and that's where David Cronenberg wants to take us.

Flesh is what remains of the body after we rid it of the images that surround it. For the skin of the body is composed of formative images. We learn to see our bodies by comparing them to the other's fascinating body image, by taking those images as our own. To be a body is to be trapped in the gaze of the other. In this way, a specular universe is established where I am the image of another and vice versa. Returning to the inconsistency of the flesh is, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has already shown us, leaving this imaginary register where narcissistic relationships so present in the theme of the double prevail (Merleau-Ponty, 1961). An absolutely recurrent theme in Cronenberg, see the narcissistic relationships that structure Gemini e M. Butterfly: film where René Gallimard is so fascinated by his own feminine ideals that he is incapable of realizing that he is projecting them onto a man.


collision and capital

Let us finish by dwelling on two films by David Cronenberg that represent in an exemplary way the critical potential inherent in his cinematographic experience: Crash e Cosmopolis

When Crash came out, the sociologist Robert Kurz wrote a small polemical text where he tried to disqualify the film as if we were facing a fetishistic aestheticization of the fetishism of merchandise, but an aestheticization marked by the reversal of euphoria into the melancholy imposition of the accident. Hence statements such as: “In “Crash”, with all good will, no transcendent moment is glimpsed. The characters are as unreliable as the reality. Would this then be a film about the fetishism of modernity or a fetish film? Or maybe even an unsuccessful reflection on fetishism? Perhaps, however, it is about the art of showing why a consciousness of the fetish world, crystallized in an absolute critical void, is no longer incapable of representing according to artistic molds” (Kurz, 1998, p. 30).

This criticism that denounces the alleged “absolute critical emptiness” of David Cronenberg is symptomatic. She is unaware, on the one hand, of the strength of a critique of fetishism that passes through the saturation of the fetish object and the destitution of its phantasmatic security. In a device that we have already seen several times in the history of contemporary art, saturation ends up producing the difference.[ii]

On the other hand, by reducing what we could understand as a “transcendent moment” to the exposure of a radically different horizon in relation to subjects and the world, it ends up falling into a more serious mystification than the one it allegedly denounces. Because it leads us to believe that we would have at our disposal, already in the current situation, the images of our emancipation, the images of life liberated from the results of the colonization of the social imagination by the processes of material reproduction of capitalism. These images would have, by magic, the ability to preserve themselves from contamination by the fetish in an era precisely marked by its relentless generalization.

Earlier, I spoke of how Jacques Tati was able to produce the comic image of the insubmissive body, leaning on the figures of those who fall to the margins, of those who remain in the anarchic disposition of the popular classes. However, the beauty of his films, for us, comes from discovering an era that is no longer open to us. Done today, this lightness and sublimity (which is also the lightness and sublimity of Chaplin, of Keaton, of Jerry Lewis) would become a mockery. Something of it has been preserved, but in a very different intensity, marked with a mixture of humor and melancholy, in the unintentionally comic situations of Jim Jarmusch's displaced characters.

Between Tati and us, another form of cinema grew: the one on which Cronenberg's production is nourished. Such a form eliminated any possibility of margin that could be expressed in the accessibility of the language of popular humor. For it colonized the margins, it organized transgression, it took the industry's imagination to points which, until then, could only be reached under the safe shadows of obscurity.

In this context, operations like those mobilized by Cronenberg are profoundly realistic and materialistic. Certainly, it does not follow another possible path: the one marked by the brutal push towards incommunicability and fraying. But she is realistic in exposing that the pure circulation of the fetish is not capable of sustaining itself in its own circuit, that it is obliged to move processes that can produce collisions, can transform collisions into the raw form of a real, which, as Hal recalls Foster about certain paths of contemporary art, will be the expression of a “traumatic realism”.

In this sense, Cosmopolis it can function as a kind of ending point that makes explicit, in a retroactive way, the tension that runs through a long series of productions by David Cronenberg. Based on the book of the same name by Don DeLillo, we see a day in the life of a young yuppie in his limousine. While speculating against currencies, losing fortunes without even changing his appearance, Eric Packer seeks to cross insurgent New York City in order to get a haircut from his childhood suburban barber. Along the way, Packer sees employees, dealers, lovers parade through the limousine. Unlike cars from Crash, which break down all the time, this is a car that feels invulnerable, completely safe and huge.

At one point, Packer welcomes Vija Kinski, his “theory boss” in his limousine. Inside Packer's limousine, his head of theory lectures on the fascinating character of the contemporary dynamics of capitalism. At the same time, outside, an anti-capitalist uprising fills the air on the streets of New York with tear gas, blood drawn by batons and police screams. A man ends up self-immolation, adding the odor of burnt flesh. None of this, however, seems to change the course of Kinski's ideas, his leisurely pace of someone who has discovered the wonders of Hollywood-celebrity-style Zen Buddhism, as well as his interest in the world from the speculators' speculative point of view.

For her, “money has changed. All wealth has become its own object. All enormous wealth is now like that. Money has lost its narrative quality, just like painting before” (DeLillo, 2003, p. 79). Inside Packer's limousine, around computers with information from stock exchanges around the world: this is how Kinski celebrates the new stage of financial capitalism. For the first time in the entire film, Packer pays attention to someone else who is speaking these lines.

That money ever had a narrative quality is something that could only be defended on the condition of ignoring how capitalism has always been animated by the referentiality of capital's increasingly openly autonomous dynamics of self-valorization. But it must be conceded to the young speculator Packer's head of theory that masks have become completely obsolete. We no longer need to imagine that money has a narrative quality, that it tells the saga of the material production of goods and their growth, of visionary creativity and its reward for merit, of the ascetic commitment to work enlivened by the Protestant ethic.

It is the destructive absence of any narrative quality that should fascinate us in the contemporary circulation of monetary wealth. At least this is the chant to be taught. As if it were possible to transform the death drive into an unimpeded financial flow. We must, in the moral-superegoic sense of duty, We should, let us be fascinated by this autonomy that seems to be endowed with the ability to disembody everything in a continuous flow, to destroy the corporeity that defines the uniqueness of objects and activities, that speaks only of itself, that seems to follow the incantatory voice of a Clement Greenberg of finance.

Singing voice: “Property no longer has any connection with power, personality and authority. Not with exhibitionism, vulgar or in good taste. Because it no longer has weight or shape. You yourself, Eric, think. What did you buy for one hundred and four million dollars? There were dozens of rooms, incomparable views, private elevators. Neither the rotating room nor the computerized bed. Neither the pool nor the shark. The airspace? Control sensors and software? No, not even the mirrors that tell you how you feel when you look at them in the morning. You spent that money for the number itself. One hundred and four million. That's what you bought. And it was worth it” (Ibid., P. 80).

Only a filmmaker like David Cronenberg would be able to film this self-movement of capital transformed into a mode of operation of desire. Cinema at the service of social criticism we know. But we know little about cinema as a tragic exposition of the junction between economic life and psychic economy. In fact, as we have seen, David Cronenberg was always sensitive to the martial character of desire that only manifests itself when it collides with its point of excess.

However, with Cosmopolis, he recalled how these subjects haunted by their own jouissance are not the point of misfit in social life. They are the true working core of contemporary capitalism. They are the incarnation of a monetary unit that has lost its narrative quality in order to realize itself as pure movement, to say nothing of anything but its own quantity, to carry out the final dematerialization, to submit the body to the perfect performance of muscle fat, to perform the acceleration of what begins to be counted in nanoseconds, the acceleration of the decomposition of time in disjointed instants.

So capital built its own version of jouissance, its own version of creative anarchy. For a moment, it seems that the drive that turns against order would be the very engine that makes order work: “a specter haunts the world”, says electronic signs on the streets of New York: “The specter of capitalism”.

But during the film, Packer will lose his fortune the same way he won it: in the relentless pace of speculation. He will see his marriage end the same way he lost his fortune: no reaction. That is until he goes to the house of the person who wants to murder him, as if he expected to find a force greater than himself, a violence that could stop the whole process. But there he finds only elemental male rivalry driving the desires for destruction. No real opposition, no force from outside. The worst violence comes from himself, the shot that hits his hand is fired by himself.

A real crisis is never just economic, but also political and, above all, psychological. Crisis not only of the models, but also of their counterpoints. Crisis that teaches us the meaning of this other phrase that Eric Packer will hear from a lover, a phrase that he will need the entire film to understand: “You're starting to think that doubting is more interesting than acting. Doubting takes more courage.”


capital collisions

But let's end by looking back at Crash. When JG Ballard wrote Crash, he claimed to want to invent a new form of pornography. This must be understood as a new way of writing the exhaustive visibility of desire. This exhaustive visibility is the matter of Crash.

It is enough to analyze the narrative form of one of the first paragraphs of the novel, which begins with Vaughan's fixation on a car accident that would have happened to Elisabeth Taylor: “In his vision of a car accident with the actress, Vaughan was obsessed with the multiple wounds and impacts – by the dying chrome and collapsing bulkheads of the two cars meeting head-on in a complex of endlessly repeated collisions in slow-motion motion pictures, by the identical wounds inflicted on their bodies, by the image of windshield mist fog- breeze around her face as she broke its dyed surface like an undead Aphrodite, by the exposed fractures of her thighs impacted against the handbrake supports, and above all by the wounds in her genitals, her uterus pierced by the brand's heraldic beak of the producer, his semen poured through the light signals that forever recorded the last temperature and the full level of gasoline in the machine” (Ballard, 2009, p. two).

Note the rhythm of the description, without pauses, a single sentence occupying the entire paragraph. As if it were a question of creating a continuous flow of images that pass from dead bodies to the car reduced to the condition of wreckage. As if it were a question of a stopped time proper to collisions, these same collisions that seem to paralyze flows, break movements and produce a new form, built from wounds and impacts. We perceive this writing that seeks to make the accident into a possible form of encounter between machine and human. There is no longer the encounter of the machine as an extension of human abilities, as a promise of development and progress through the strengthening of human capacity to intervene in a disenchanted world from the demands of production. What we have is the “collision”, the crash which is the crash of the collision between cars, but it is also the crash of the stock market and the collapse of the economy.

But let's try to take into account that crash this is exactly it. In a text for the automobile magazine Drive, JG Ballard (“Autopia”, 1971; see Ballard 2009) states that the fundamental image of the XNUMXth century is not the man on the moon or Churchill making the V for victory after the end of World War II, but “a man in a car motor vehicle, driving on a concrete highway to some unknown destination” (Ibid., P. 245). The highway as the pure expression of the century, with all its speed and violence. What could not be otherwise, since it is a question of understanding that the fundamental point of a society is given by the way in which it organizes flows and movements, the way in which it operates circulation. That is, more important than knowing what societies exchange, is knowing how they exchange, at what speed, at what pace and intensity.

And the automotive rhythm is the rhythm of friction and speed, of the approximation of points in space through an apparently unimpeded flow that, at various points, produces collisions.

In this way, through the automobile, JG Ballard provided a beautiful metaphor of a society fascinated by the universe of circulation. Like automobiles, things within social life, the objects of our desire circulate faster and faster until they collide. They become equivalent and create a strange zone of indifference, of dis-identity, until the shock appears with the force of redemptive crises. As if shock were the only thing capable of breaking the indifference of circulation.

The automobile society is the best metaphor for a society for which circulation is the total social fact. In the midst of the rise of the automobile, of cities designed for unimpeded flow (such as Brasília or Los Angeles), a moment before the first major oil crisis, in the midst of the construction of automotive landscapes (since speed builds landscapes, it erases contours and creates relationships), JG Ballard decides to turn his attention to what stops the flow, to what freezes bodies in a cold and clinical scene, like this one that describes the image that James Ballard (the novel's protagonist) sees right after his first car accident, in which he collides with Dr. Remington: “All I could see was the unusual juncture of her thighs, opening for me in their deformed way. It wasn't the sexuality of the position that stuck in my head, but the stylization of the horrific events that surrounded us, the extremes of pain and violence ritualized in that gesture of her legs, like the exaggerated pirouette of a mentally retarded girl I once saw representing a Christmas play in an institution” (Ibid., P. 14).

The description is almost clinical, without psychological expositions of sensations, except for the analogy with something that, initially, is outside the universe of libidinal investments, namely a pirouette of a girl with a mental disorder. As the protagonist says, what makes him fixate on the scene is not the sexuality of the scene, but the possibility of stylizing what seems contrary to all stylization.

But this coldness is just a second way of recovering a sexuality that seems to be struggling to go in another direction, strange to the direction of the libido flows organized by the management processes of our jouissance. Because it is a sexuality that looks for points of collapse, that looks for collisions. Or who seeks to make sexual time break the perfect circulation of the society of services. Like this harassment made by James Ballard with a stewardess at the airport, driven by the shape of her skirts and the fuselage of the planes. Sexuality that seems to want to return to those scenes in which the machine, technology, is no longer at the service of humans, but at the service of what seems to be incapable of being reproduced.


a bumpy story

In this regard, let us remember what the narrative basis of the novel is. The story tells the paths of the couple Catherine and JG Ballard towards a jouissance that is described through the phrase that will end the film: “maybe the next one”. This phrase does not exist in the novel. But she is central to the film. Because the film seeks to take one more turn in criticism. As if between the early 1970s, when the book was written, and 1996, when the film appears, something had happened. Something like the end of the automotive dream, the oil crisis, congestion instead of speed. The paralysis instead of the promises of circulation in a Autobahn German.

As James will say, in the film, looking at the marginals next to his apartment: “There seem to be three times as many cars now as there were before the accident”. Because the accident is a way of making us realize how much the promise of speed has turned into a blockade. Thus, if the book begins immediately describing how Vaughan dies and his scenes of cum, the film needs to start with this impossibility materialized in “maybe the next one".

This impossibility is suspended for the first time when James meets the wife of the one he killed (Dr. Remington). They will have sex for the first time in a car similar to the one that killed her husband, this after almost getting involved in another accident. It is only in this way that jouissance occurs for the first time. After that, Remington will take James to the world arranged by Vaughan. World of celebrity car crash replicas.

A world in which two fundamental flows of libido are mixed: the images of celebrities that “run the world” in an apparently free space and the circulation of automobiles with their collisions. Because our society does not forget the way in which its celebrities, these types of conformation ideas provided by the cultural industry, seem to irresistibly walk towards the clash, towards the collision.

Around these real stagings there is a kind of community of people marked and traversed in their bodies by the pleasure of the accident. Another social class, people who live in cars, in semi-abandoned houses. Another organization of life, fragile, with no longer perspective of duration. A community that makes the accident a form of “reconstruction of the human body by technology”, as Vaughan would say.

This reconstruction is carried out by breaking bodies, breaking their unity, the functionality of their limbs and organs, even if, after the accident, limbs will be unable to be used, body parts will be subjected to a painful interaction with the technology, aberrant movements will appear as the only possible ones. Finally, a reconstruction that is done through the opening of other cuts, erogenous zones, orifices, in an exposure of the libidinal body that can overflow in all directions in the rhythm of accidents.

From there, Vaughan enters Catherine and James' lives, first through the dimension of fantasies. It is his ghostly presence that will allow, for the first time in the film, Catherine to come with James. Until then, their open relationship, the constant circulation, made by the two, never seems to lead to any meeting. The first effective encounter will take place through the confusion produced by Vaughan. First, gender confusion. It is through Catherine's speech forcing James' imagination towards a homosexual relationship that the two are finally able to enjoy. It is in the guise of Jane Mansfield that the driver of the next staged accident will appear.

However, this ghostly presence does not last long. It asks for an increasingly explicit passage to the act, as if it were the case of showing not only the deepening through a “benevolent psychopathology that beckons to us”, as Cronenberg would say, but also a wear and tear. Accidents function both as traumatic symbioses in which the living and the dead mix, between flesh and aluminum, between the human and the machinic, and as fetishes. Symbioses in which even death is an opportunity to continue the flow of libido and jouissance. Not even death works as a stop.

But it is also about fetishes that attract and wear out. They increase in intensity at the same rate as they lose in strength. At the end, we find James causing, in the recomposed car that was once Vaughan's, an accident with his own wife's car, which is thrown off the road, half dead. He accomplishes what Vaughan was trying to accomplish. While she is fading, while her body is hovering between life and death, he will try to have sex with her. The answer she will give to her desire, the answer to this maximum point of fetish staging, could not be otherwise: “maybe next time”. And so ends society's dreams of infinite circulation. Bringing this dream to an end is one of the greatest tasks of all cinema true to its content.

*Vladimir Safatle He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).

Originally published in the magazine Speech vol. 51, no.o. 2.



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[I] In this regard, I take the liberty of referring to the last chapter of my book The circuit of affections.

[ii] See in this regard, for example, the interpretation of Death in America, by Andy Warhol, made by Foster (1997).


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