The Cars That Ate Paris

The Cars That Ate Paris

In the Swiftian beginnings of Peter Weir's irreverent first feature The Cars That Ate Paris, a downturn in the economy has called for savage innovations in the rural town of Paris, Australia, where scrapped automobiles are the reigning source of currency. Nestled in a valley below a steep hillside, the Parisians have converted an unpaved "boneshaker" of a road into a literal death trap–they lure unsuspecting drivers into a steep decline, then tow the resulting wrecks into a chop shop at the center of town. After being stripped of their belongings, the few "veggies" who survive are used for experimental procedures at the local Bellevue Ward, and the remaining spoils are divvied out among the citizenry. The mayor (John Meillon) gets a car stereo as a kickback, an elderly woman polishes a hubcap on her front porch, a mother exchanges tires for clothing, and a deranged yahoo makes wind chimes out of Jaguar hood ornaments. Part black comedy, part science-fiction Western, part demolition-derby movie, Weir's unclassifiable B-picture presaged the Mad Max trilogy and helped kick off a new wave of adventurous, socially conscious Australian cinema. In a way, The Cars That Ate Paris seems like a dry run for Weir's ambitious Hollywood conversation piece The Truman Show: Both films examine communities that conspire, at all costs, to sustain a profitable lie, then see their corrupt foundation collapse into chaos. In the Jim Carrey role, Terry Camilleri plays the one person in town who isn't in on the joke; even if he were, the Parisians deem him too ineffectual to do anything about it. After recovering from the "accident" that killed his brother, Camilleri is pronounced harmless by the mayor, who adopts him as a son and gives him the nominal duty of parking superintendent. Though he longs to escape Paris, Camilleri is a prisoner, held at bay by roadblocks and his own phobias about getting behind the wheel of a car. After a wickedly funny start, graced by some of the eerie lyricism of Weir's The Last Wave and Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Cars That Ate Paris loses some of its allegorical grip in the second half, when the younger generation breaks off into lawless, terrorizing motor clans. Featuring snarling, custom-made death machines, including the poster-image Volkswagen Beetle with porcupine spikes, the climactic mayhem has the flamboyant kick of later work like Mad Max and The Warriors, but the film has frittered away its social commentary. As an unusually generous bonus feature, the disc tacks on Weir's 1979 TV movie The Plumber, a vicious class comedy in the clever guise of a home-invasion thriller. The largely one-setting premise of a cheery but irascible tradesman (Ivor Kants) who menaces bourgeois anthropologist Judy Morris fits squarely with Weir's microcosmic visions of society coming apart at the seams. The whole thing is played too broadly, but home-improvement victims will appreciate the unending weeks it takes for a simple bathroom to be converted into a piece of avant-garde sculpture.

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