Venture outside the city, if you dare. A double feature of Australian films at SBS On Demand about the lunacy hiding in the bush.
Cameron Williams

8 Nov 2017 - 10:43 AM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2017 - 11:11 AM

We know it can be overwhelming to choose a movie from the 900+ now streaming at SBS On Demand. In this new series, we suggest movies best watched back-to-back (i.e. 'Watch this, then that').

In the 1970s, major freeways connecting Australian cities were rare. There were no mobile phones nor the safe haven of gigantic service stations every few kilometres. Australian filmmakers became fascinated with the mystery and allure of the outback. They began exploring the Australian psyche in the context of small towns and used outsiders as avatars for the trepidation of stepping outside the city. The Cars That Ate Paris and Dimboola take the mystery of what lies beyond the city limits and push the idea to extremes. Both films capture the experience of venturing into the unknown.

The Cars That Ate Paris opens like a tourism commercial with a wealthy-looking couple enjoying a road trip. The fantasy gets junked when the couple’s convertible flies off the edge of a cliff, killing them both. Director Peter Weir, in his feature-length film debut, pulls back the façade to show there’s something not quite right about life in the countryside. Three men are shown hauling a calf into the boot of the car, but that’s nothing compared with the weirdness that follows as the Waldo brothers (Terry Camilleri and Rick Scully) enter the town of Paris. The brothers are startled by bright lights as they drive down a narrow dirt road on their way into town and they slam into a ravine. Arthur Waldo (Camilleri) survives the crash but his brother (Scully) dies. Arthur is adopted by the strange mayor of Paris (John Meillon) who decides he can stay.

Arthur discovers Paris thrives on car accidents – surviving children get adopted into families, bodies are used for medical experimentation and car parts are salvaged to create new hybrid vehicles used by a local gang. Paris has its own laws, economy and population control. It has prospered in isolation without answering to outside laws. Weir got the idea while travelling in France and noticing there were odd little towns named Paris littered all over the French countryside. He wondered what would happen to tourists who took a wrong turn thinking they were heading to the capital – maybe it was a trap. The Cars That Ate Paris is a bizarre film and it showcases Weir’s ability to leave things open to interpretation, a skill he would master with his next movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The peculiarities of Paris are on show in every scene, but there’s never any clear explanations or exposition dumps. Weir leaves us wondering how a town like Paris came to be and how it functions. The craziest part of The Cars That Ate Paris is the feud between the town elders and the youths who drive around in cars that look like what would happen if Dr Frankenstein was a mechanic. If the designs look familiar it’s because filmmaker George Miller used them as an inspiration when designing the vehicles for the Mad Max franchise. The idiosyncrasies of The Cars That Ate Paris come to a head in the finale that sees the town fall into degradation after a confrontation with the local automotive hoodlums. Weir leaves everything vague enough – in the best possible way – for you to wonder if this self-destruction happens in Paris every week. Weir would go on to refine his directorial style and become one of the elder statesmen of Australian cinema, but The Cars That Ate Paris is him at his raw, unhinged best, exploring our fear and paranoia of small country towns.

Watch 'The Cars That Ate Paris' at SBS On Demand


Dimboola takes a similar approach to fear and loathing in the country, but approaches it as an ocker Australian comedy. An English journalist (Max Gillies, who also stars in The Cars That Ate Paris) arrives in the town of Dimboola, Victoria for a wedding. Over a weekend, he’s immersed in the odd history of the town and the manic behaviour of the locals. The film is based on the play of the same name written by author Jack Hibberd that takes place at a wedding where actors represent the family of the bride and groom. The audience are viewed as guests and the aim is to create a sense of realism to heighten the drama. Dimboola does away with the immediacy of the play and bounces between everyone involved with the wedding instead.

There’s a bridal tea, a bucks’ party, drunken brawls and lots of kooky Australian characters. Making Gillies’ character British allows for the usual rivalry between Aussies and Poms, but it’s heightened in the rural setting. Dimboola is lighter in tone compared with The Cars That Ate Paris because its humour comes from its larrikin spirit. Some of the scenarios come across as a little dated compared with today’s standards, but Dimboola slots in nicely as a comedy relic of the Ozploitation era. Look out for Bruce Spence, who is also in The Cars That Ate Paris, one of the patron saints of 1970s Australian cinema.

Watch 'Dimboola' at SBS On Demand


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