The Cars That Ate Paris

Year: 1975. Running time: 86 minutes. Color. Directed by Peter Weir. Starring John Meillon and Terry Camilleri. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1. Monaural soundtrack. DVD release by Home Vision Entertainment.

Review by Derek Hill

Due to financial support from the Australian government, film production during the 1970s in Australia was strong and vibrant. Eager to show the world that the country was more than just kangaroos, cutesy koala bears, and good-natured, beer-swilling outback yokels, financial agencies, such as the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) and later the more culturally sophisticated Australian Film Commission (AFC), were equally enthusiastic to groom new film talent. From 1970 to 1975, the AFDC was the primary institution for commercially viable product. But unlike the AFC, which would eventually export the so-called New Australian Cinema to the world from 1975 to 1980 with films such as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Fred Schepsi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979), the AFDC was more prone to produce crass juvenile comedies and soft-core sex films than art house or social-realist fare.

But the AFDC period was not totally barren of artistically minded young directors -- case in point, Peter Weir's oddball science-fiction/horror/Spaghetti Western/thriller The Cars That Ate Paris (1975). Although Cars lacked the enigmatic gossamer style of Weir's later work, such as the previously mentioned Hanging Rock and The Last Wave (1977), this suspenseful black comedy is hardly your run-of-the-mill genre offering. Much like L. Q. Jones' similar, apocalyptic American nightmare A Boy and His Dog, released the same year, The Cars That Ate Paris wears its genre influences on its sleeves and then totally dismantles them, reconfiguring the cliches of whatever style it's spoofing into something far stranger.

Weir was arguably the most important and successful filmmaker to come out of Australia during this time, and The Cars That Ate Paris had a lot to do with that. The film was not a box office smash, but it did manage to bring international attention, from film festivals and critics, to what was going on cinematically down under.

After waking up in a Paris hospital after a horrible car accident that left his brother dead, soft-spoken Arthur (Terry Camilleri) tries to reconstruct the mysterious circumstances that surround the accident. Unfortunately, in Paris -- a small rural hamlet whose entire economy is based around the stripping of cars -- Arthur quickly realizes that people don't much like to talk about the many automobile accidents that occur there. Things get even more bizarre when the Mayor (superbly played by John Meillon) takes Arthur under his wing, letting him live with him and inviting him into his family as the son he has never had. But the Mayor's intentions are not selfless in the least. Afraid of what Arthur will do when he finds out that the township is indeed sponsoring vehicular mayhem for profit, the Mayor decides to keep Arthur under constant supervision. Arthur eventually becomes the traffic cop of Paris, but his overbearing good intentions run afoul of some of the more aggressive drivers, and soon, not even the Mayor can keep the road rage from consuming the whole town.

Provocative to say the least, The Cars That Ate Paris is a sly, intelligent, and frequently witty dystopian science-fiction satire that foreshadows George Miller's more brawny 1979 gearhead classic, Mad Max.

Even better is Weir's The Plumber (1979), which he directed for Australian television through the South Australian Film Corporation. Clocking in at a brisk 77 minutes, the film is a tightly controlled psychological thriller with a knowing black comedic streak.

The story is deceptively simple. On sabbatical from her teachings at University, Jill (Judy Morris) spends her days working on her anthropology book while her research scientist husband, Bill (Robert Colby), toils away at the lab. Then one day a young plumber by the name of Max (the unforgettable Ivar Kants) arrives at Jill's door to fix the pipes, changing her life forever. Although Jill is not aware of any problems with the apartment's pipes (a faculty flat on campus), and her husband selfishly could care less since he only has mental space to focus on his own research work -- an interesting gender dilemma since he refuses to take into account Jill's own responsibilities to finish up her own book -- Max proceeds to destroy the bathroom. And every morning he returns to repair what he couldn't the day before, until ultimately Jill must confront Max.

Uncomfortably funny at times, The Plumber is a brilliant examination of class warfare, gender politics, and the deep unsettling loneliness of modern life. Trapped within the concrete tenement building with the predatory yet passive-aggressive plumber, the equally passive-aggressive and ruthless Jill is forced to confront the hidden savage within.

Home Vision Entertainment's DVD also contains two video interviews with Peter Weir, wherein he discusses both films. The disc also includes two informative essays on each film. Both The Cars That Ate Paris and The Plumber have been digitally remastered and are offered in their proper aspect ratios, 2.35:1 and 1.66:1 respectively.

The Cars That Ate Paris is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in a new digital transfer approved by director Peter Weir and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. This disc also includes Peter Weir's psycho-thriller The Plumber. Special features: interviews with Weir on The Cars That Ate Paris and The Plumber. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.