Based on Fernando Arrabal’s own play from 1958, this filmed version, clearly upgraded with an eighties punk style, was incredibly made for French television in 1983, featuring plenty of nudity, raunchy sexual behaviour, and profane dialogue that satirizes politics, sexuality, and religion with no hesitation.
The beauty of Arrabal’s writing is his ability to use metaphors, sharp wit, and use of globs of absurdism without sacrificing the coherence of a story, which isn’t always the case with surrealist compatriot Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Car Cemetary is the classic passion play – Christ is betrayed by Judas, tried and convicted of prohibited behaviour and action, and sentenced to die on the cross – but it’s been enhanced for contemporary audiences used to rock stars and a bombardment of media stories of a world in political nuclear unrest.
Set in the rusting city of Babylon, the story has two main narratives: groups of rebellious flock to a town made of rusting junkyard cars where a legendary rebel rock star named Emanou is planning a concert forbidden by the authorities; and a pair of policemen waiting to hear back from a mole within Emanou’s camp in order to coordinate an arrest, ending his determination to form a world of peace and zero violence.
As Emanou, the late Alain Bashung fits the role, oddly growing into the character as Emanou moves from a mythic figure within the city to a Christ figure, performing miracles, such as an endless supply of McDonald’s burgers for his flock of fans from a hat, or bringing a Lazarus figure back to life. By the end of the drama, his visage and form suit Arrabal’s Christ character, who’s hoisted above his followers wearing thorn crown, chained to an old motorcycle.
Emanou’s most fervent admirer is Dila (Slogan’s Juliet Berto), the whore wife of the town’s greedy owner, and she stops offering favours to the inhabitants when she’s overcome by Emanou’s aura of goodness. His traitor is the band’s guitarist, a Judas figure who does the evil deed for hard cash, but is rewarded with a “dud” cheque that he subsequently repurposes as a lighter for his stogie as Emanou is arrested and brutalized.
Dila’s conversion from whoredom is part of a surreal journey that began as a performer, swimming in a mermaid suit with a dolphin at a music club, where both Emanou and her future husband were present. Although her marital duties are as town matron (clanging the curfew and bedtime chime for the fornicating youths) and whore, she receives bits of faith-healing wisdom from a hand-sized, bearded angel she keeps in a glass enclosure, whom the husband would love to smash into pieces.
The town is basically a mess of piled up cars that lie close to a bomb crater, and the sky/backdrop often glows with solid translucent lighting. All manner of characters live within the shells of old cars, including punks, BDSM lovers, kids, and a mass of more ordinary youths dressed in tattered and smudged quasi Renaissance clothes. (Apparently somewhere among them is a young Dominique Pinon!)
An older man and woman form the two military cops relaying information from their mole to ‘the Bunker,’ where Emanou’s arrest and execution are being plotted, and Arrabal uses this goofy pair mostly for absurd humour. The male cop is constantly being encouraged by his partner to exercise (jogging, push-ups, and running in circles with a rope around his waist), and once they infiltrate Babylon and meet their mole on the night of Emanou’s arrest, they almost ruin things by engaging in a marathon fornication session. Arrabal assigns some amazingly raunchy dialogue to the man, and the cop’s persistent descriptions of wanting another blow-up (‘up to his ears’) from the fatigued woman is a brilliant use of rude poetry and absurdism.
The set décor and costumes are highly evocative of a punk, post-apocalyptic society (much like Mad Max or Hardware), and Bashung’s music adds a weird flavour to the drama. Most of the score feels like fragments of songs rather than pure underscore, and the music almost disappears for a stretch until the night of the illicit concert, where Emanou will be betrayed on stage by his Judas.
Cult Epics’ DVD is taken from a sharp HD PAL master, and one can imagine the added clarity if the teleplay were available on Blu-ray. The NTSC conversion isn’t perfect – panning motions look sped-up at times – but the colours are vibrant, and any soft shots are the result of a few weak hand-held cameras rather than the conversion.
The mono soundtrack is clear, but it’s a pity the teleplay wasn’t originally mixed for stereo, which would’ve given Bashung’s music extra punch. The keyboards and Bashung’s vocals drift around steady bass notes, and his music creates a sense of dislocation that suits moments where the actors are walking around or through vestiges of an obliterated civilization.
Unfortunately there are no extras on the DVD, so there isn’t anything to place the production in context, nor offer some comparison between the original stage play and the enhancements Arrabal added to make things more cinematic.
Car Cemetery has reportedly been regarded as a ‘lost’ work among the director’s fans, and its status as a TV production shouldn’t deter others from investigating this witty spin on the passion play. Arrabal’s greatest weapon against hesitant viewers is his humour and sense of the ridiculous, and amid the obvious sincerity of his translation of Christ to a rebel rock star, one can’t help but enjoy the absurd and bawdy moments of this tightly paced gem.
This title is available separately and as part of Cult Epics’ limited Fernando Arrabal Collection, of which Vol. 1 includes Vive La Muerte (1971), I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973), The Guernica Tree (1975), and Vol. 2 includes Car Cemetery (1983), The Emperor of Peru (1982), Farewell, Babylon! (1992), Borges, Life of a Poet (1998), and Arrabal, Panik Cineast (2007).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan