The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) begins by playing a cruel joke on its audience. The first frames present a yuppie couple enjoying a weekend drive in the country, drinking Coke and smoking cigarettes—images that suggest we’re watching an advertisement. Their idyllic afternoon, however, turns nightmarish. As they venture into the Australian countryside, they are abruptly driven off the road by a group of men who murder them and scrap their car for parts. They are the victims of a deadly scam, as we later find out, and with their deaths we are thrust into the bizarre world of the colonial township of Paris, Australia.
In the rural environment of Paris, the violence of colonization and its relationship to the town is made transparent through striking aesthetic decisions.
The world of The Cars That Ate Paris is violent and chaotic, but the powerful find solace in their vehicles. Not only is Paris’ remote setting only accessible by car, it’s a place where vehicles are used as currency (Parisians trade car parts for goods), status symbols (a citizen’s place in the town hierarchy is made clear by what they drive), and for religious purposes (like funeral processions and mass). Paris is a surreal environment where cars have come to fulfill a quasi-mythical role in society. Car accidents, for example, not only fuel the town's economy, but spare parts from crashes are tacked onto the facades of Paris’ main buildings like religious iconography. Conversely, cars are objects of terror; a gang of youths called the Hoons use their vehicles to menace elite Parisians. The Hoons are a group of working-class youth who are fed up with the conservative government and use their cars to rebel against it—operating them as demolition vehicles and modifying them to intimidate others. The omnipresent car imagery is particularly haunting for the film’s protagonist, Arthur, who has been stranded in the town by his brother’s demise in the same kind of “accident” as the couple. Moreover, Arthur is stuck with an unbearable fear of driving in a town totally reliant on cars. His outsider status—both as a non-local and as someone who does not drive—makes him a perfect guide for viewers as we navigate the landscape of this outlandish society.
In the rural environment of Paris, the violence of colonization and its relationship to the town is made transparent through striking aesthetic decisions. The film’s invocation of “Pioneer”-era imagery reminds viewers that rural, white, Australian towns are a direct product of European settler colonialism. The “pioneers” alluded to are the white settlers who ventured further from port cities, violently occupying Indigenous land—making towns like Paris possible. These allusions include the prominently featured Paris Victory Hall, a building named in reference to the so-called “victory” settlers had over the Indigenous people. The pioneer aesthetics are interwoven with car kitsch, with elite Parisians showing the same reverence toward so-called pioneers that they have for their cars. The mayor’s particular fondness for his car and for the settler era suggest that he views himself as a modern-day pioneer, using cars to further exploit the land he finds himself on. On top of this, Paris’ set design, as well as the attire of the mayor and other members of government, reference 20th-century-European fascist aesthetics: a town official’s leather uniform, as well as the mayor’s chambers, are decked with eagle insignia, a symbol used in Nazi Germany. These visual odes to European fascism stand in stark contrast to Paris’ small-town setting, rendering the authoritarian aesthetics cartoonish and absurdist.
The film’s themes of violence and class segregation are especially interesting when considering the suburbanization that took place in Westernized countries in the 1970s. In the United States and the United Kingdom, this was a decade of “white flight”: white families with disposable income fled urban centers, leaving people of color and the working classes behind in rapidly decaying—that is, overcrowded and underfunded—cities. This was largely aided by expanded access to cars for the middle classes, as well as city planning that prioritized cars over public transportation—and thus the middle- and upper-classes over the poor. Public funding went toward making city centers more accessible to those who were able to commute from the suburbs—with several highways built to bridge the gap to and from suburbia. This furthered an already splintering class divide. This context for The Cars That Ate Paris’ release in 1974 is significant: the elite Parisians’ pride in their rural town, which is entirely reliant on cars, can be read as synonymous with their upper-class interests. Much like the growing suburban class in real-life Westernized countries, Paris’ elite could impose rules and regulations on their isolated town which would be met with resistance in a more diverse, urban center. Their authoritarian aesthetics reinforce their power, instilling a sense among the elite that their rural, neo-Victorian lifestyle is somehow superior to urban life. Like those fleeing cities for the suburbs, the Parisians found security in segregating themselves from larger society to satisfy their class concerns.
The Cars That Ate Paris is part of a larger movement in film in the 1970s that took up a critique of capitalist culture and the role that cars played in it. Mad Max, a film made five years later, portrayed a dystopian Australia where cars and motorcycles—vehicles that, once again, allowed settlers to live further from metropolitan hubs to spread colonial rule—were turned against the elite classes as “civilized” society collapsed. In both Mad Max and The Cars That Ate Paris, violent, vehicle-wielding youths terrorize elites, leaving clouds of destruction in their wake. In the former, the Nightrider’s gang targets police, while the latter’s Hoons terrorize the conservatives who rule Paris. While both gangs are presented as villainous and menacing, their anger toward the upper classes—who have imposed strict, reactionary regulations—is righteous. The young rebels’ violence targets the colonial establishment, and the bourgeoisie in these films can’t hide from those who refuse to play by their rules. Both films take a dark turn for the elite as conventional law disintegrates.
Especially in our current moment, where cars are largely inaccessible to those without significant capital—and are even weaponized against Black Lives Matter protestors, as seen this past summer in particular—it is hard to imagine them as tools in the revolution against the ruling classes.
The dismantling of colonial monuments is the cataclysm of the violent final act of The Cars That Ate Paris, ultimately leading to the destruction of the town. When the mayor’s home is attacked and his racist statue of an Indigenous boy is destroyed, he publicly sets fire to one of the Hoons’ cars in an act of retribution. This attack marks a breaking point, and the group retaliates with an assault on the town’s Pioneers Ball, an event that, once again, pivots on nostalgia for early settler colonialism. Arthur finds himself in the middle of this battle, facing a heavy decision: overcome his fear of driving and leave Paris, or stay and be killed in the chaos. Despite spending the film overwhelmed with fear about the violence caused by cars, he finds that the car that killed his brother is his only escape. Driving away from the town, he laughs to himself as he passes the elite residents who are now, ironically, on foot.
The final scenes of Arthur fleeing the town call into question our contemporary culture’s relationship with cars. While Arthur finds redemption in a vehicle as the credits roll—and even as the rebel youths attempt to reclaim cars for the resistance—it is a fraught vindication as automobiles remain tied to a history of violence. Especially in our current moment, where cars are largely inaccessible to those without significant capital—and are even weaponized against Black Lives Matter protestors, as seen this past summer in particular—it is hard to imagine them as tools in the revolution against the ruling classes. The film’s critique of the segregated culture enabled by cars, as well as our reliance on them, is still relevant, as our society struggles to reconcile with the violence this segregation has caused. The suburbanization begun in the 1970s is still favoured by today’s ruling class, creating grueling conditions for the poor as the gap between the upper and working classes has grown. Moreover, as wealth disparity swells, and cities become increasingly gentrified by former suburbanites, the cycle of oppression continues. As such, we must envision and build futures that do not rely on cars, but instead create more communal forms of transportation while working toward abolishing capitalist class structures. While Arthur is unable to find a replacement for driving by the film’s end, perhaps we can build an alternative to this dependency through first confronting our colonial-capitalist ways of thinking.