SWERVE. One twist of the steering wheel is all it takes. It happens in the first five minutes of Alison Maclean's 1992 film Crush. Two women in their thirties, Lane (Marcia Gay Harden) and Christina (Donogh Rees), are on a road trip. Christina is going to interview the reclusive novelist Colin (William Zappa). Lane is just along for the ride. The women exchange banter, as old friends will do. But their repartee has an aggressive edge. Sexual tension is in the air. Lane seems moody and irritable, Christina a bit defensive. When it's Lane's turn to drive, she goes way too fast. Suddenly, something catches her eye: a female mannequin at the side of the road. It's an empty, and therefore enigmatic, sign. We only glimpse it for an instant, as the car zips past. But Lane turns her head and looks back at it. By the time she faces forward again, it's too late. She curses, violently jerking the steering wheel. The next shot shows the mannequin in the foreground. Down the road beyond it, the car skids, missing a curve. Then, in a brief close-up, Christina is thrown against the windshield. And then, in two long shots, the car smashes through a guard rail and flips upside down. It all only takes a few seconds. It's over before we can react. The sequence ends in a blackout. When images return, we don't know how much time has passed. A tracking shot follows a trail of debris. Lane crawls out of the wreckage. She walks away, leaving the unconscious Christina behind. How can she abandon her friend like that? It's as if the crash--or the darkened screen--had made for a gap in time. Future is severed from past, effect is separated from cause. The story swerves onto a new track. When we see Christina again, she is no longer herself. She is grotesque. Her face is disfigured. Her brain is damaged. She can't quite control her body. Her speech is halting and slurred. She has trouble finding the words to express her rage against Lane. For her part, Lane acts ever more strangely. Now she's on the sexual prowl; now she's tough, even butch; now she's all giggly and girlish; now she's a bitch from hell. She's like an emotional catalyst; she stirs everyone up. Lacking the nerve to visit Christina in the hospital, she turns instead to Colin and his teenage daughter Angela (Caitlin Bossley). It's a multiple seduction. Lane gives Angela a sexy dress, takes her out to clubs, confides in her and gives her advice. The lonely girl quickly grows to adore her. Colin is an even easier conquest. Lane barely needs to do more than glance his way. He falls for her, hard. Soon he's hopelessly in love, and they are fucking all the time. But Angela feels betrayed by this, left out in the cold. Her crush on Lane turns into hatred. She starts visiting the hospital, where she befriends and nurtures Christina. Meanwhile, Lane gets irritated with Colin, and eventually dumps him. He turns into a pathetic mess, always moping around. The story goes on from there. Emotional constellations get reconfigured, again and again. Crush has as twisted a plot as any soap opera. Its characters are just as torn and confused, its emotions just as tangled. But melodrama is public and expansive. It gives full play to extreme feelings. It brings hidden loves and resentments into the open. Whatever it touches is rendered larger than life. Whereas Crush is private, oblique and compressed. It works by insinuation. It conveys the most important events with the slightest nuances. It unfolds in a series of compellingly blank images. The roadside mannequin is only one of these. There's also the faucet dripping in extreme close-up as Lane takes a bath. There's the long shot from above of Christina struggling in her bed, managing to sit up for the first time. There's the can of paint that Angela abruptly spills, when Christina arrives to confront Lane. And there's that amazing shot of Colin going down on Lane. The light dims as the camera moves in slowly, from a medium distance. Eventually all is darkness, except for a single pool of light bathing Lane's strained, ecstatic face... What can we know of Lane's motives and desires? What can we feel of her pleasures and her pains? These images stymie all attempts at explanation. They convey no definite meanings. They embody no obvious emotions. They offer us only their mute, resisting surfaces. Crush never resolves its dilemmas of baffled desire. The plot indeed comes full circle, with Christina getting her revenge. But the abyss into which she pushes Lane engulfs us as well. There is no recognition, and no reconciliation. We like to think that to understand is also to forgive. But Crush suggests that understanding has its inscrutable limits. Crush's images are as gratuitous as they are opaque. It's in this very way, perhaps, that they speak to our loves and our hatreds, our deepest and most cherished desires.
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