Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

          First, the usual disclaimer for a foreign film that received a dodgy initial release in the U.S.—this Australian feature was originally titled The Cars That Ate Paris, but the fine folks at New Line Cinema must have assumed that American moviegoers would wrongly assume the picture was set in France. Hence the moniker on the above poster: The Cars That Eat People. And while automobiles don’t actually consume any people (or municipalities) in the picture, onscreen events are so bizarre that carnivorous vehicles wouldn’t have represented much of a stretch. Incredibly, this grim phantasmagoria represents the directorial debut of Peter Weir, who subsequently joined the ranks of the world’s most respected filmmakers. One assumes that the normally high-minded Weir envisioned the picture as a satire on consumerist culture (and on the eccentricities of rural Australians), but the surpassing weirdness of The Cars That Ate Paris is highly distracting. The picture doesn’t cross over into outright surrealism, but it comes close.
          Framed somewhat like a horror movie, The Cars That Ate Paris presents a fictional Australian municipality called Paris, where the main business is scavenging parts from cars that crash on a nasty mountaintop road just outside of town. In fact, Paris residents actually cause these accidents, evading notice from authorities by concealing evidence. Worse, survivors are taken to the local hospital and lobotomized, which is why the hospital is stocked with people in semi-vegetative states. One night, a sad-sack type named Arthur (Terry Camilleri) and his brother fall into the Paris trap, and only Arthur survives. For reasons that never become particularly clear, the mayor of Paris, Les (John Meillon), decides to accept Arthur into the town’s regular population. Conveniently for the plot, Arthur is afraid of driving because he once caused a fatal vehicular accident, so he has no real means of escape. Much of The Cars That Ate Paris depicts Arthur’s integration into the strange rhythms of Paris culture. The movie also dramatizes strife between the town’s established power structure and youthful rebels led by Charlie (Bruce Spence). The whole strange predicament concludes with a citywide celebration that turns into a bloody riot. During the climax, Weir unleashes such peculiar vignettes as the mayor reading an intense poem filled with Aussie patois (never has the word “billabong” found a more suitable home). Meanwhile, the youth gang rages through the town in customized cars festooned with spikes and other lethal adornments.
          By far the least effective element of The Cars That Ate Paris is the picture’s esoteric humor. Some of the visual gags are so broad they could appear in Monty Python sketches (such as the town doctor using a power drill to perform lobotomies), and some of the bits are so subtle as to barely exist. It’s also possible that the film is so infused with Aussie signifiers that foreigners don’t possess the necessary frame of reference for recognizing some of the punch lines. Still, as the movie grinds through one inexplicable scene after another (and as indifferent leading man Camilleri shuffles through the movie like he’s received one of the town’s signature lobotomies), a sense of inertia clouds the whole enterprise. It’s evident that Weir had an absurdist itch to scratch at this point his career; after all, his next two films were 1975’s ethereal Picnic at Hanging Rock and 1977’s impenetrable The Last Wave. Furthermore, given all that Weir has subsequently accomplished, it’s unwise to dismiss The Cars That Ate Paris as simply a misguided or pretentious attempt at allegory. However, evidence contravening that assessment remains in short supply, because The Cars That Ate Paris is as dull as it is odd.

The Cars That Ate Paris: FREAKY

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