Retro Review: The Cars that Ate Paris

Australia. Directed by Peter Weir, 1974. Starring Terry Camilleri, John Meillon, Kevin Miles. 88 minutes (Criterion cut).

Australia, the mid-’70s. The country is in the midst of an economic downturn. Unemployment is high and shows no signs of getting better anytime soon.

Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George travel the back roads in their automobile, moving from town to town, looking for work. One night, they decide to follow a lead and head to the rural town of Paris. George, the driver, never makes it there alive: he crashes the car and is killed instantly. Arthur, sleeping at the time of the accident, has only vague memories of what happened.

Once released from the Paris hospital, Arthur has nowhere to go and, the car having been destroyed in the wreck, no way to get there. He falls into depression, his survivor’s guilt compounded by phobia. Not too long ago, Arthur was in another automobile accident–one in which he struck and killed an elderly pedestrian. The jury acquitted him, but the incident left him with a fear of driving. If he didn’t have that phobia, it might have been he who died, not George.

The mayor (John Meillon) takes him in and gets him a job. But Paris is a peculiar little town. The hospital is very busy, as frequent automobile accidents ensure a steady stream of patients. Many of them are never seen again; others suffer unrecoverable brain trauma and become “vegges,” permanent residents of the hospital. The local psychiatrist employs unconventional methods of treatment. And the youths of the town are violent and unruly, prowling the streets in bizarrely-modified autos.

The townsfolk harbor a bizarre secret. All those car accidents aren’t accidents at all; the residents of Paris cause them and loot the wreckage. Survivors are murdered, incapacitated or absorbed into the community. Arthur’s new neighbors hope to do the latter, but they won’t hesitate to the first two options to keep their secret.

Expectations can be tricky to manage sometimes. Let’s say you see a film that both IMDB and Wikipedia describe as a “horror-comedy.” Assuming you put much stock in the accuracy of either of those sources, you’re well within your rights to be disappointed when the film turns out not to be horror or funny. But how much of that can you reasonably hold against the film? Which faults actually belong to the film, and which ones belong to its public perception?

That’s my dilemma with The Cars that Ate Paris. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how it ever gained a reputation as a horror movie. There are two creepy scenes and one shocking shot of gore, and that’s it. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to have the intent of a horror film behind it–writer/director Peter Weir doesn’t seem to be trying to scare the audience, and he doesn’t use much genre convention. Even the title is misleading: the titular cars don’t come into play until comparatively late in the film and never play much of a role. The spiky silver Volkswagen that figures in just about all of the film’s advertising and merchandising doesn’t appear until the movie is almost over and only appears in a few shots. It’s not the cars that are eating Paris, it’s the people.

The latter half of the phrase “horror-comedy” makes a bit more sense. Once one becomes aware of what’s happening in Paris, comparisons to Edgar Wright’s modern classic Hot Fuzz are obvious. Both films are social satires about insular communities going to extreme lengths to protect themselves and “the common good.” Late in the film, the Mayor and the town council installs Arthur in the newly-created role of town Parking Inspector, complete with uniform. (Arthur had a job as a hospital orderly, but struck out at that, so the town leaders need to find him something else to do if they’re not going to kill him.) But Arthur is passive to a pathological degree and turns out to be spectacularly unsuited to the position.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t many laughs in the movie. Even the situation I just described elicited no more than a few amused chuckles. If much of the film is intended as outright comedy, I can’t see it. I’m not sure whether this might be because the film is rooted in a forty-year-old representation of a foreign culture and I just don’t get it, or whether it simply isn’t, in an objective sense, very funny. Ditto with the social commentary: I can tell that Weir definitely has a point to make, and I think I’ve worked out a bit of what that point is, but I don’t know how all the pieces fit together.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean the film is a tough slog. The characters and situations are engaging enough to keep me interested, and there are several fine performances, particularly from Meillon, Robertson and cult character-actor Bruce Spence as a deep-fried mechanic who builds wind chimes out of Jaguar hood ornaments.

Ultimately The Cars that Ate Paris strikes me as a bit of an artifact, a relic from a distant place and far-off time. I just wish I could figure out what it has to say about that place and time. But I guess you can’t expect to win ’em all.

The Cars that Ate Paris poster

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