Peter Weir’s directorial debut The Cars That Ate Paris, like a few other movies from the early career of the Australian filmmaker, tends to defy most attempts at classification and at fitting it comfortably into one genre or another. Most slap “horror-comedy”, a broad and unsatisfying label, onto films like this. While it’s certainly funny and creepily disquieting by turns, shoehorning The Cars That Ate Paris into a genre just so we may talk about it as “this kind of film” or “that kind of film” quickly becomes a useless exercise.
Set in the fictional hamlet of Paris in rural Australia, the film follows young Arthur after his brother George dies in a car accident just outside the town. The Parisians welcome Arthur and console him, but it soon becomes evident that Paris is no ordinary town. Arthur himself hardly seems to notice any questionable behavior apart from a few odd comings and goings – but we become aware very soon that the town of Paris thrives on car accidents from the dangerous outskirts roads, and that the townsfolk engineer accidents for their own benefit.
Silly set-up, no? What characterizes the tone of The Cars That Ate Paris is just that: a silly, comedic set-up that suddenly takes a darker turn, a bubbly Sunday drive turning instantly into a fiery wreck. While calling the entire thing a “horror-comedy” is too easy, it can be said that the tone of the film hinges on those two genres without ever slipping over into either for too long. The pivoting itself can provide comedy or shock, and Weir and Co. bring us back and forth over the course of the film more times than I care to count. The effect turns the film into a kind of tonal collage that’s tough to pin down at any one point in time.