Pulling quite a switcheroo on audiences, The Cars That Ate Paris is a film that it is best to be clear about before viewing. This emphatically isn’t a crazed barrage of vehicular madness, nor is it set in France. With the goods that the title foretells kept mostly to the final 15 minutes, this is mostly a humorously macabre look at a strange community, an isolated Australian town where mans relationship with the automobile has left what passes for humanity in very much a subservient role. Our nominal hero is Arthur Waldo, survivor of a car crash that kills his brother and newcomer to the quiet community of Paris, whose mayor takes a shine to him. Arthur unfortunately is afraid of cars though, especially where accidents are involved, and his worries begin to get the best of him, not ideal in a place whose economy and source of new citizens comes from cars and car accidents. Plus the youth of Paris are getting restless… With a passive hero and minimal exposition director Peter Weir creates a fascinating and at times disturbing tale, he shows the audience enough to grasp the situation whilst leaving them plenty of intriguing blanks to fill in.
He has a great eye for the town, unhurried shots capture neat exteriors, scenes are often largely still and uncluttered, townsfolk quietly going about their business, the presentation gives an ordinary feel that renders the emphasis on cars all the more alluringly strange. We see men, women and children involved, there is a minimum of “regular” conversation, people passing the time of day and such, the whole place is portrayed in powerfully off-balance yet mostly subtle fashion, enhanced by the frequent glimpses or outright gazes at the beautiful surrounding landscape or the sky above. There is some idea of why the town is the way it is from its isolation, but in such a wonderful place, the dark turn they have taken is all the more unsettling. Equally effective if not so detailed treatment is given to the characters here, though most tend to pop in and out without great screen time they make an impression and importantly, come across as organic to the setting. There’s Arthur, played dazed and confused by Terry Camilleri, rolling with the punches of his situation, making the best of things whilst conveying constant disturbance, not the most sympathetic of protagonists but does a good job of keeping the audience on their toes. He also handles his personal arc rather well, giving the climax quite a punch. Then there’s sinister and mysterious Dr. Midland, creepily essayed by Kevin Miles and Bruce Spence as the aggressive and gallows humoured Charlie.
Best of all is The Mayor, a terrific turn from John Meillon. Smoothly menacing, Meillon channels all notions of cheerfully malign authority figures into one outback gentleman, electric stuff and the films greatest boon. The film perhaps lacks a little in forward momentum, scenes pile on top of each other and the course of things is a little random, a little arbitrary. Also, in taking the oblique approach to its goings on the film collects up a number of interesting themes and ideas that aren’t really explored to their best advantage. Still, I found this to be a near constantly interesting, often unsettling and ultimately powerful work, well recommended to fans of Australian and cult cinema.