Peter Weir, “The Cars that Ate Paris” (1974)
Acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir’s directorial full-length debut is an oddball comedy horror flick that riffs on a number of themes including isolation, the uncertainty of one’s identity, social conformity, small-town provincialism and struggling to survive in a foreign and hostile land: themes that have informed European settlement of Australia since 1788. Social criticism is a muted, matter-of-fact presentation of ideas and issues that viewers have to judge and decide for themselves. The film was made on a low budget with a small cast in Sofala, a rural town in New South Wales, which supplied the film’s extras.
The plot initially seems straightforward and minimal. Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George are travelling into a country town, grandly named Paris, when they have a serious car accident. Arthur later wakes up in the town’s hospital, shaken and nursing a new phobia of driving cars. The mayor of Paris (John Meillon) befriends Arthur and takes him into his home. Recuperating from his injuries and the shock from both the accident and from learning that George died in the accident, Arthur acquaints himself with the town-folk and gradually discovers Paris’s secret: the town survives on creating horrific road accidents with death traps set up on the roads, salvaging spare parts from damaged cars and the possessions of victims; the victims themselves are brought to the town hospital to be used as guinea pigs for bizarre medical experiments. The mayor puts Arthur to work in the hospital and then as parking-ticket inspector, the latter in which capacity the young outsider inadvertently causes a major stoush between the mayor and the town-folk on one hand and the local hoons who spend their days driving old car wrecks through the town. The quarrel between Paris and its gangs of car-cruising youth escalates into a major riot that threatens to rip the town apart.
The version of the film I saw has been cleaned up a great deal and it is much brighter and more attractive than the original version in which the lighting was very poor. The rural setting is very picturesque and the town used for the film looks idyllic and peaceful with a distinctive 19th-century pioneering look. The film’s entire style is low-key and unassuming in keeping with the character of Arthur who spends most of his time acting like a frightened little mouse, passive, hesitant and allowing himself to be used and manipulated by the genial mayor. Through Arthur’s passivity, viewers see the full horror of Paris, populated entirely by psychopaths beneath veneers of upright God-fearing and church-going conservative Anglican country-folk. The scheme of killing people by staging traffic accidents and robbing them of their cars and possessions to provide work for the locals and to keep Paris going is revealed to be the work of the mayor and the hospital doctor (Kevin Miles).
Acting is very minimal and the dialogue, especially John Meillon’s lines, drives the film’s plot. Meillon is the most outstanding actor in the movie, by turns kindly and sympathetic, tyrannical, sinister and ultimately crazed. His gradual control of the vulnerable Arthur is hilarious yet creepy to watch though ironically through his manipulation of the young man is to be found the cure for Arthur’s phobia which allows the outsider to escape. Second most outstanding actor or actors I should say are the eponymous cars that take over Paris after one of their number is set alight in an earlier scene; in particular, the hedgehog Volkswagen that (spoiler alert) impales one of the perpetrators in the town’s evil scheme is a visual stunner.
In spite of its apparently threadbare style, the film’s plot is quite complicated if not complete: the sub-plots of the teenagers in revolt against their elders and the medical experimentation upon the hospital invalids are not very well developed. The light-hearted mood of the film belies the darkness that exists in the town in which car worship is taken to its most extreme development.
The town of Paris can be seen as a metaphor for Western society generally, in which the fetishising of technology has led to people losing their moral compass, politicians assume power through collusion and flourish by turning their people into a war machine yet spurning those (the car hoons) who do the actual work of killing. This observation of a world in miniature, in which people and society become ever more deranged with more killing and who ultimately destroy themselves, is what gives this quirky little film continued cult status.