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CRASH (NC-17) (100 min.) _ Is David Cronenberg's new film an erotic meditation on obsessive human behavior or merely soft-core smut with a Hollywood pedigree? There are arguments to support both sides of that debate.

Crash is a lurid tale of grotesque attraction regularly interrupted by sex scenes that serve their prurient purpose, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard. There's no denying the sensual expertise of these fairly explicit episodes; Cronenberg and a brave cast of actors create some striking coital images.

Whether or not you feel there's any redeeming social quality to those couplings depends upon how much you'll allow yourself to examine what Cronenberg is doing here.

At first glance, Crash looks like a sick joke; people becoming sexually aroused by the violence and uncertainty of automobile accidents. As the story progresses, a strange logic slowly emerges. Cronenberg thinks our sexual habits have become as impersonal our driving habits. We're insulated in our cars until that time when someone dents our fenders, and that's not a bad analogy for the way we fall in love or lust, either.

It's a slender idea upon which to build a movie, and that may explain why sex gets more screen time than psychodrama.

The plot revolves around a man called James Ballard, played by James Spader, who regularly turns up whenever some director tackles provocative sexual politics (sex, lies and videotape, White Palace, etc.). In the opening minutes, we see James and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) being unfaithful, then sharing their erotic memories with each other.

While driving one night, James loses control of his car and slams head-on into an auto driven by Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). Her husband is killed in the wreck, but that doesn't stop her from being turned on by James. She introduces him to a cult of people who spend their time re-enacting famous car crashes of celebrities such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Soon, he becomes as obsessed with twisted steel and scarred flesh as the rest of them.

There's noting subtle about that plot, or the way Cronenberg executes it. Crash is a bold act from a filmmaker who has never been confused for a shrinking violet before. Peter Suschitzky's cinematography and a sonic musical score by Howard Shore create tension in the most static passages. It's a minor shock to see such esteemed actors as Hunter and Spader involved in these nude-and-lewd behaviors, which adds to the discomfort factor.

Cronenberg works with the same horrific combination of metal and flesh that gave us the willies in Dead Ringers and Videodrome, doting on the sight of surgical pins penetrating injured limbs. There isn't much difference between an incision and a body cavity in his demented vision. Crash runs out of thematic gas long before it coasts to a complete stop, but the impact lasts beyond that.

Crash opens today at Movies at Pinellas Park, Movies at Clearwater and Movies at Mission Bell in Tampa. B

SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW (R) (120 min.) _ A cryptic title is the first thing that sets Bille August's film apart from every other two-bit mystery churned out by movie studios. Certainly more inviting than those generic titles using the same words _ such as "fatal," "power" and "fear" _ over and over again. Smilla's Sense of Snow even has a fresh-looking central locale in Copenhagen.

Once you get past the cosmetics and a nifty set-up, August's movie reverts to the form of those inferior movie puzzles. The worst offense is his reckless disregard for logical behavior under the contrived circumstances.

First, the circumstances: Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) is a beautiful loner with a history of rebellious behavior. She ended her solitude long enough to befriend a neglected Inuit boy who later fell from their apartment house roof and died. The police call it a routine playtime accident. Smilla's sense of snow _ the indentation and direction of the boy's tracks _ leads her to believe it was murder.

But, who would want to kill this sweet child and why? The answers are eventually revealed, but they hardly justify the shortcuts August takes along the way. If I didn't worry about angering some readers, I'd tell you what the deal is to let you know how stupid this movie becomes. Two words should be enough of a hint: prehistoric worms.

Audiences can overlook a dumb resolution if they've been adequately puzzled enough along the way. Smilla's Sense of Snow doesn't even manage that. Screenwriter Ann Biderman makes her characters follow the well-worn path of illogical behavior to keep this story moving. Smilla is an expert pickpocket when it's time for a new clue. She becomes more intrepid (including taking a job on an all-male ocean freighter) as fear progresses. And, who would take time to fall in love with a complete, nameless stranger (Gabriel Byrne) with all these bodies piling up?

Villains are always in the right place to be spotted by the wrong people. When Smilla finds a tell-tale cassette tape, she immediately knows where to find an electronics expert with the best ears in Copenhagen to decipher the noise. Shadowy figures stalk her every move and they all turn out to be the same guy. What Smilla really needs is a sense of humor, so she can relish this flop like the rest of us.

Opens today at theaters around Tampa Bay. C-