The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Directed by Peter Weir

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This film isn’t about Paris, France like I thought it was.  In fact, I operated under the assumption that it was some kind of documentary about the auto industry in Paris or about a series of auto-related riots in the city.  I don’t know why, but I’m glad I watched it.  This film is a mix of The WarriorsMad Max and Nazi Germany imagery.

Paris, in this case, is a small town in Australia that survives by causing car accidents, often killing anyone who drives through, and using the wreckage as material for their town or to sell.  It’s ridiculous.  We start with a happy couple until they die in a brutal car wreck.  Then we meet two other guys hitting the road.  They are Arthur and his brother.  They too get into a car wreck, and Arthur survives while his brother dies.

As Arthur is patched up, we learn that he once killed someone with his car, and ever since he has had a fear of driving (he’s also not allowed to drive).  Arthur is ‘welcomed’ into town by the mayor and his wife, with whom he stays until he can leave.  The way the mayor treats Arthur feels like he is slowly brainwashing him, and that’s because he is.

At first it might seem like the mayor would want Arthur killed, so as not to expose the town’s dirty little secret.  Instead, he tries to persuade the man to go along with their plans and join them.  This part of the film feels like a story we’ve seen before.  Protagonist meets a nice person who helps them out, and it’s only later that they realize the person who helped them out is evil.  In this case, though, we already know the mayor is evil.

Arthur tries to leave, but when he gets into a car to drive away he panics, still deathly afraid of driving.  He stays in town and is given a job at the hospital where he is to work mostly with “veggies,” people who are implied to be survivors of past car attacks.  There was a scene earlier after another car crash when the doctor administers a shot or something to the man’s head.  It seems that he effectively lobotomized the injured driver, and that is the cause for all of these “veggies.”  If this is indeed the case, it’s even creepier than if they just killed the surviving drivers.

Arthur is given more responsibility by the mayor, and we learn more about the unpredictable youth in the town.  These are people who look like warriors out of Mad Max or The Warriors.  They drive their own, intricately decorated and fortified cars, and they harass townsfolk, including Arthur.  It’s clear they don’t like the mayor, and Arthur has now joined their list of despicables.

At about this point in the story, the film’s title seemed to make much more sense.  At first it seems like it’s Paris eating the cars, but it began to feel like this car crash-causing line of work had been going on for years.  The mayor’s children are adopted, and it seems likely that their parents were killed in one of these car crashes.  I began to suspect that everyone in the town is a result of these car accidents, and now they help cause them themselves.  Basically, each person in town was remade by this evil and helps to perpetuate this evil, like Arthur.  Arthur starts as an outsider, but he slowly (though it feels rather quick) becomes more involved in the running of the town until he is one of the worst offenders.  He becomes the mayor’s righthand man.  He’s really just Joseph Goebbels to the mayor’s Adolf Hitler.

So The Cars That Ate Paris could be a message for how everyone in Paris is both victim and a perpetrator of this violence.  Well, there is a costume party Pioneer’s Ball, and that night the youth attack.  They drive their decorated/fortified cars through the town and through buildings, obliterating the city.  The most memorable car is smothered with spikes that impale one poor guy who tries to fight back.

Arthur, through the mayor’s insistence, rams a car into one of these youngsters, killing him.  It’s an odd scene as Arthur seems more and more troubled by his actions as he continues to do it.  He rams his car into this young man probably twenty times before the guy is a bloody pulp.  The mayor takes pride in Arthur’s actions, but Arthur realizes he’s no longer scared of driving, so he hits the road and leave town (despite the mayor’s insistence that the roads are closed and no one can come in or out).  The film ends with Arthur smiling like a little kid as he drives away from this hell hole.

What’s most fascinating about the way this story is told is the way we seem to switch protagonists.  We start with Arthur since he is the outsider.  Everything seems weird to him (as it does to the audience), and you think he’s going to investigate the mystery of what’s going on here (he knows his car accident wasn’t an accident), but instead he is easily manipulated and ingratiated into the town’s hierarchy.  He isn’t just pretending, either.  When the gang of angry young drivers attack, they have a list of four names on their hit list painted on one of the cars.  Among these names are the mayor’s and Arthur’s.  So we watch Arthur morph into the bad guy.

When the mayor makes Arthur Parking Officer, he tries to tell the angry young men to move their cars, and they refuse.  Out of context, it would be easy to see Arthur as the victim, but he’s the one encouraging the problem that plagues Paris.  He’s the bad guy, not by malicious intent but by ignorance.  This is where the similarities to Nazi Germany begin to pile up.

Arthur never really assesses his role in this problem.  He is weak-willed, and the only reasons he joins the mayor is because he’s too scared to drive to get out of town.  Making a substantial effort to get away from the problem isn’t in him, so he sticks around and makes things worse.  Arthur doesn’t even triumph in the end.  When he kills the young man, he doesn’t express remorse for his actions even though the look on his face suggests he is deeply troubled.  Instead, in a strangely funny scene, he joyously exclaims that he’s not afraid to drive anymore.  It’s like if someone who is afraid of guns shoots a squirrel and then is happy that they’re not afraid of guns anymore.  His fear of cars is removed when he uses the car as a weapon.

Arthur remains just as ignorant in the end as he ever was, and probably much more so than he was at the beginning.

There is a lot of dark, unsettling humor in this film, including the label given to the “veggies.”  At the Pioneer’s Ball, the afflicted car crash survivors are ushered into the ball dressed as, it appeared, burn victims.  It shows just how much the town doesn’t feel the weight of its problem.  This is funny to them, and it’s not surprising that this is funny to them.  The town is probably filled with people like Arthur who wouldn’t initiate this kind of perspective or these actions on their own, but is easily directed by someone with twisted morals (like the mayor).

So this is a film about a town that self-destructs.  I suppose it might have been inevitable, or maybe this is just an optimistic viewpoint of some kind of evil.  The message of the film seems to be that organized evil never lasts.  Paris was built on death, and it ends with death, except for Arthur who gets away mostly unscathed.  So while the institutions of evil crumble, the people who are preyed on to spread that evil are always there.  They are like hosts, unaware of the destruction they are contributing to and spreading because all it takes is one shitty person with a loud mouth and a bunch of people willing to listen but unlikely to think.

 

When Arthur leaves town, he’s only thinking about himself, not about the town or what became of him.  He’s like a cockroach who survives a nuclear war.

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