Titles can be important when building up expectations in movies, so when something is called “The Cars That Ate Paris”, you know it’s not going to be a run-of-the-mill affair. Released in 1974, and mostly funded by the Australian Government, this slice of Ozploitation was directed by Peter Weir, written by Hal and Jim McElroy, and starred Terry Camilleri. Amazingly, all of them went on to have long careers in the industry, rather than forever being known as “those guys that made that film”. Still, George Miller wrote Made Max and Babe, so making the blackest of satires just seems to be a stepping stone to success in that region.
The film starts as it means to go on; failing to explain much, hiding all the plot in the details, and committing random acts of violence for your viewing pleasure. A couple goes off on a drive in the countryside, living the consumerist dream, and then have a fatal, ironic car crash. It’s halfway between a cinema advert, a road safety announcement, and the first series of Monty Python. And if you don’t find that opening enthralling then turn the film off, because that’s the humor and style from here on in.
After that cold open, the story properly starts with a dialogue-free section showing the economic downturn and the brothers Arthur and George Waldo going from town to town looking for work. Newspaper headlines, that the camera never highlights but always shows, give a tale of general financial stagnation and popularist social conservatism. This reflected the era of recession and stagflation that the country was going through in real life, as well as laying down the central themes and storytelling mechanics of the movie.
Whilst heading towards the town of Paris, somewhere in the farmland outback, the two brothers are involved in a car accident. Arthur lives and finds himself taken under the wing of the outwardly respectable, but utterly creepy, Mayor Len Kelly (John Meillon). From there, he and the audience get introduced to the locals, who blend middle-of-the-road respectability with outlandish freakishness by all being molded by the town’s one economic product: making cars crash and then taking whatever they can find from the vehicles. Everything is bought by bartering of victims’ items, the Mayor’s kids were “adopted” from such forced accidents, and the local doctor is getting a steady supply of subjects for his experimental brain surgery. The whole town is in on the slaughter, but no one says anything because that’s just not The Done Thing. For the youth of the town (which includes Bruce Spence doing his amazing trademark job as a local weirdo), this means driving around in homemade murder buggies, expressing teenage rebellion by bringing to the surface what their elders are trying to obfuscate and repress.
The intention is to create tension, critique, and parody polite society, and probably to make some comment on the myth of the Australian frontier. It’s also, with “missing” posters on the walls of the police station and traffic signs stockpiled in sheds, trying to generate a sense of futile isolation and self-denial amongst the inhabitants. The townsfolk are all playing a part, stuck in their own fantasy, so everything happens at a slow, steady, and measured pace with few realistic reactions allowed as they might give the game away. This means that the viewer will either find it bitterly funny, and get into the pacing as some carefully played out prank, or utterly dull as very little happens over the course of the 50-minute middle act. It’s the humour of artifice and of tension, rather than of direct jokes or innately funny gags.
On the horror side of things, there are similarly overtly slim pickings. Other than the final 10 minutes, there are only a few moments of blood getting thrown around, and even then, most of the action comes from rapid, impressionistic cutting. Much like the comedy, the horror is bound up in the situation and the tension, rather than in any specific acts. When things do get rolling, it’s at a very different pace than all that came before, so if you didn’t connect with the first 80 minutes, you’ll find the last 10 a bolt-on that doesn’t give much of a satisfying conclusion. Although, if you did like the build-up, then it’s more of the same cynicism, satire, and observation that was layered on before.
All over, this is a difficult and divisive film. Its B-Movie meets art-house, and that frequently fails to satisfy either camp. Personally, I liked it, a lot, but of the five people I watched it with I was the only one and several considered the whole thing a waste of celluloid. I don’t want to say it’s “difficult” or “complex”, because that often ends up sounding pretentious and egotistically sapiophilic. It’s just very much its own thing and it doesn’t want to even think about playing well with others. That it’s such a product of its time also doesn’t help, as it’s already got levels of abstraction before adding in an extra barrier to giving a monkeys’ about it.
It easily deserves a place in the psychotronic cannon, and by its own rules, it’s an absolute Treasure. It sets out to show an absurdist town in a crazy world, and then to destroy it. It sets up a puzzle, leaves you shocked, and then lets you work out your own “what happened next” and decide who was or wasn’t the bad people in the whole affair. But because of its own self-absorption and determination to work on little but its own rules, it’s also absolute Trash, because it’s too out-there for most of the audience to connect and care. I have no idea what sort of test to suggest as to how you will feel about it, beyond “did you like the cold open?”, so I leave it to you to make your call on if you should invest the 90 minutes or not.