The Cars That Ate Paris
Of all the many talented filmmakers to emerge from the Australian New Wave of the 1970s among them Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford, and Philip Noyce none have proven more enigmatic or visionary than Peter Weir, who gave the movement its two most ineffably haunting masterpieces, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977) before leading the cash-in charge to Hollywood. Often interested with outsiders wandering into eccentric communities or cultures, he first scratched that itch with the gaudy sounding The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), a bizarre mixture of Hammer horror, black comedy, and social commentary that befuddled interested distributors by not quite following through, at least in the most literal sense, on its title's peculiar promise. The "Paris" in question is actually a sleepy backwoods Australian hamlet, and the cars, while a symbol of hunger and consumption in several ways, never actually eat anything. When the then-nascent (i.e. product-starved) New Line Cinema acquired the picture, their solution was to take the unwieldy flick to the chop shop, hacking it to pieces and re-christen it The Cars That Eat People; thus, cheapening the title from a clever subversion to an outright bait-and-switch job. Unsurprisingly, the film was a dismal failure almost everywhere it played, but to anyone with an eye for cinema, it obviously bore the fingerprints of a uniquely gifted director. Though not necessarily a great or even good film, The Cars That Ate Paris is nonetheless a fascinating debut that affords one the rare opportunity to watch an audaciously talented artist mature through risk-taking and failure. The film gets off to a strangely comedic start with a commercial parody that finds an attractive young couple setting off into the countryside for a Sunday drive in their new Datsun, enjoying their carefully product-placed Alpine cigarettes and swigging on cans of Coca-Cola. Just as the shilling reaches delirious heights, the car skids off the road and down a steep embankment. But rather than linger on the twisted wreckage, Weir's camera pans up and away to take in the lush green hills, in what is the first instance of the director's enduring fascination with the uneasy relationship of technology and nature. It's a smart, jarring opening that segues somewhat roughly into the beginning of the film's narrative, which concerns two middle-aged brothers combing the back-country unsuccessfully for work. When they come upon a sign for Paris that promises "Work Available," they venture off down an unpaved road into the dense foliage guarding the village. However, just as they're about to reach their destination, they're blinded by what appear to be bright headlights, sending their car off the road. Only the youngest brother, Arthur (Terry Camilleri), survives, and he is taken in by the strange Parisians, who, at the behest of the town's banally evil Mayor (John Meillon), endeavor to keep him there for reasons never fully articulated. It's clear, though, that the Mayor has taken a shine to the painfully timid Arthur, and eventually he asks him to become a part of his family. Since Arthur is essentially powerless to leave due to his immobilizing fear of cars, he decides to stay and is rewarded by being made the town's parking official. This puts him in direct opposition with Paris's unruly youth, who terrorize the town with their modified autos. When the Mayor punishes one of these delinquents by setting fire to his car, this conflict finally boils over into a violent showdown that finds Arthur trapped in the middle.
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Fueled by the dissent of the youth culture in the face of the ongoing Vietnam War, The Cars That Ate Paris combines Weir's fascination with strange rural communities with a satirical edge absent in most of his subsequent work, which was abandoned for a very good reason: The director has very little aptitude for comedy (as he would remind us many years later with Green Card). Though some of the darkly humorous elements, concerning Paris's mad Dr. Midland (Kevin Miles) and his gruesome medical experiments, are competently handled, the broader moments, which include the opening faux-commercial and the climactic costume ball, land with a thud. Worst of all is a lazy, left-field parody of Once Upon a Time in the West replete with a Morricone-esque, harmonica-tinged music cue that brings Arthur into a standoff with the rowdy youth, while not even attempting to capture Leone's striking sense of composition. Weir's on much sturdier ground when tending to the eccentric details of the villagers, achieving an eerie sense of pagan ritualism that recalls The Wicker Man. But the director can't sustain that unsettling mood of mysticism that pervades his later triumphs, mostly because Arthur is just too pathetic a protagonist to earn the audience's emotional investment. The film does come to life down the stretch dig that car with the porcupine blades but, as is often the problem with even Weir's best work (e.g. Fearless), its resolution feels forced. Still, it's an intriguing mess of a debut that hints at the idiosyncratic brilliance yet to come.
Home Vision Entertainment presents The Cars That Ate Paris in a fantastic anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with monaural DD 2.0 audio. Extras include a bonus film, The Plumber (77 min.), which is a taut, made-for-television suspense exercise that's actually far more satisfying than the disc's main feature. Written and directed by Weir in 1978 to satisfy an obligation to the South Australian Film Corporation, it's a nifty little work that pits a married, apartment-bound female academic (Judy Morris) against an overbearing plumber (Ivor Kants) who veers from gregarious to sinister as he rages against class and privilege while supposedly tending to the unit's faulty pipes. Unlike most of Weir's pictures, this is a tightly structured tale of violation and paranoia with a very satisfying conclusion. It might be a minor work, but it's highly watchable stuff. Other extras include brief but informative interview segments for each film with the director, essays by Brian McFarlane and Neil Rattigan, and the theatrical trailers. Keep-case.