Obviously there’s no way a film called THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS could possibly live up to its title, especially if said film is from Australia and directed by Peter Weir. Indeed just about any assumption you can make about a film with said title is probably wrong. Paris is a backwater Australian town, the cars do not actually eat anyone or anything, and the film is a bizarre black comedy about consumerism or rural poverty or something like that. It’s hard to tell because nobody talks very much, and though the film has some nice visuals and not bad ideas it feels strangely half-done. It’s the sort of movie that has just enough good or potentially good parts to make you regret that it doesn’t work.
The theoretical protagonist of this picture is Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), an unemployed man who is roaming the countryside with his brother looking for work when a bright light forces them off the road. Arthur awakes in a hospital the town of Paris, where he’s told his brother is dead but he’s welcome to stay as long as it takes to recover. His injuries aren’t much, but he quickly finds that he’s not really allowed to leave, as the townsfolk have already decided that he will be a part of their community. Paris’ not-so-well-kept secret is that their economy is built entirely on causing car accidents and salvaging useful items (and the occasional new citizen) from the wreckage. This has created a bizarre form of trade where car parts are used as currency, and the indolent youth build brutal and garishly-painted roadsters. Despite this, the Mayor (John Meillon) and the elders try to create a semblance of normalcy and hope to grow and progress like every good small town. Arthur has been unable to drive ever since he killed a pedestrian some years back, so he’s trapped and might as well do what he can to fit in.
This is really a great premise, reminiscent of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE released the same year. Here it’s used as the setup for a sprawling social satire in the vein of THE LOVED ONE and THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, only on a lower budget. What it’s a satire of, I haven’t quite worked out yet- there are some jabs at consumerism in a few scenes, but that falls by the wayside and the main body of the film seems to be more about small town provincialism, or possibly the cannibalistic nature of free enterprise in a poverty-stricken environment. Were I Australian I might understand a bit more of this.
Not helping matters is the fact that there’s very little dialogue in this film. Weir takes a highly visual approach, which generally speaking is what good directors are expected to do, but while the various near-silent vignettes establishing life in Paris lay down the basics well enough, I felt starved for details. This is effectively an alternate society we’re being presented with, but instead of being immersed in it we’re kept at a distance. The film is littered with undeveloped concepts, like the hints that the hospital is performing unethical experiments on the vegetative crash victims in their care, or the building of a new health care facility that’s supposed to mark the town’s great leap forward, or Arthur’s own piecing together of what was done to him and his brother. Eventually the film decides that it’s about the conflict between the city elders and the youth gangs, but that’s so elementary that it can’t really sustain a feature.
The characters, sadly, all remain pretty one dimensional, with Arthur being particularly ineffectual (though this was the fashion at the time.) This is the real killer, I think- satire needs vivid personalities, even stereotypical ones, and though I can’t fault the cast, they have nothing to work with. It honestly feels like pages and pages of conversation were cut out at the last minute, and that the filmmakers worked out a lot more detail to the Parisians than they ever bother to tell us. It’s like going to a restaurant where wonderful smells continually waft from the kitchen, and being served scraps.
It’s not that the scraps are bad. There are some wonderful images here, notably the late appearance of one of the killer cars, an old-school VW Beetle covered in spikes like a porcupine. I think I’m not spoiling too much if I say that there is eventually an automotive rampage that has something of a monster movie quality; we can’t see the drivers of the custom dragsters, so they appear to act on their own volition. This happens at the very end, though, and I’m not sure it’s really enough. There’s not a lot in the film that’s genuinely funny, but I was particularly amused by a sudden Leone/Morricone parody during Arthur’s term as traffic cop.
Peter Weir would of course go on to better things; pictures like THE LAST WAVE and THE TRUMAN SHOW are good examples of how his surreal visions can work in harmony with a solid story. Without such an anchor, THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS is more a scattering of ideas than a fully developed satire. It’s one film I honestly think calls for a remake, but in the meantime this is really only something I can recommend to Weir fans and possibly VW devotees.
Story by Peter Weird, Keith Gow, and Piers Davies
Written and Directed by Peter Weir