I’m looking for new formats in which to discuss individual films or directors. Haven’t really thought of anything yet. However, I do have a movie to discuss – I watched it last night and, after browsing the Internet, decided that no one’s really talked about it thoroughly enough. So this is my meager attempt to do so.
The movie is Paul Bartel’s cult classic Eating Raoul (1982), a recent purchase I requested for the Carleton library. It’s a very entertaining black comedy about a perversely normal couple named Paul and Mary Bland (played by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) who want to start up their own restaurant, but lack the necessary funds. One thing leads to another, and soon they’re inviting rich perverts up to their apartment, bopping them on the head with a frying pan, then taking their money. But then they team up with a Chicano locksmith/thief (Robert Beltran, later Voyager‘s Chakotay), and things get a little complicated…
The film opens with a very cute credit sequence set to the 1930 song “Exactly Like You,” and followed by an introduction to “Hollywood, California! City of contrast… Here, sex hunger is reflected in every aspect of daily life…” All of these little touches add up to a very disarming atmosphere – sure, it’s about rape and murder, but in a pleasant, nostalgic way. Mary Bland works in a hospital, where she deals with a horny patient; Paul is fired from his job at a liquor store for pushing expensive wines. Their inability to get along with the modern world is a recurring subtext – with their utter disinterest in sex and their fixation on providing high-quality wine and dining, they’re actually pretty weird.
“I don’t mind a little hugging and kissing,” says the prissy Paul after a run-in with a dominatrix, “but that…” In an adorably bizarre twist, the Blands even sleep in separate, adjacent beds – Mary with her stuffed animals, and Paul with his stuffed bottle of wine. It’s such a strange choice, to make a film not about perverts, but about hard-working asexuals who are OK with a little murder now and then (or, as it turns out, every night). It gets especially interesting as the Blands’ scheme introduces them to sex, after a little prompting from Doris the dominatrix.
Their conference with her is unforgettable: she spoon-feeds her baby while explaining to the Blands, “Everybody’s gotta make up his own mind about where to draw the line. Like I personally draw the line at golden showers.” (Sadly, Susan Saiger, who plays Doris, has only had three other screen credits, and none in the past 20 years.) As Mary begins catering to the fantasies of strangers, they find themselves exposed to all sorts of weird fetishes, from a wanna-be Nazi commandant to a Vietnam vet with a sexual grudge against hippies, played by Ed Begley, Jr.
Then Raoul comes in. Robert Beltran plays him brilliantly: he’s dishonest, charismatic, sexually voracious and not exactly shy about it. He’s a man of many rackets, and makes an odd fit as a business partner with the Blands, leading to no end of friction with Paul, and a decided lack of friction with Mary. Paul’s paranoia leads him to stalk Raoul for a day, and later to hire Doris for some undercover work… as you might imagine, hilarity ensues.
But recounting the film’s plot doesn’t really do it justice. While the story’s clashes between very different ideas of the American dream (most of which either involve sex or someone’s death) provide the background for the morbid comedy, it’s the offbeat dialogue by Bartel and Richard Blackburn that make Eating Raoul the spicy treat it is. It’s often absurd and gleefully satirical, taking shots both at the Blands, who just can’t seem to help killing people, and at the swinging, rape-happy world they live in.
As the film’s introduction suggests, this is a world where “the barrier between food and sex has dissolved.” Every act is just about expressing one’s appetites: hot tub orgies, burglary, marijuana use, cooking dinner. Eating Raoul, right up to the titular event and the unexpected ending that follows, is a deliciously sick movie, constantly shifting the targets of its weird sense of humor. I trace a lot of this sensibility back to Bartel’s origins as a student of Roger Corman, for whom he made his directorial debut, Death Race 2000; you can see a lot of similar comedy in such Corman classics as A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), both of which also have well-meaning protagonists who commit mass murder.
While watching Eating Raoul, I was also reminded of other 1980s black comedies, like Basket Case (1982) and Repo Man (1984), both of which also take broad, comical shots at the modern world. I’d be interested in finding other ’80s movies that integrate comedy with horror/sci-fi with such great success. But ultimately, no film can quite pull off what Eating Raoul does so hilariously. I have to give credit to some stand-out supporting players: in addition to Beltran and the multitalented Saiger, the film has appearances by Buck Henry as a lecherous bank employee, and Edie McClurg as an inane swinger who giggles, “We like B&D, but we don’t like S&M. We met at the A&P!”
So I grant that Eating Raoul isn’t for everyone (the same probably goes for most comedies where fetishists are ground into dog food), but it’s about as funny a cinematic exploration of libidinous violence as you’re likely to find. I’ll also mention that the film has been adapted into a stage musical, which seems oddly appropriate. As cult films go, Eating Raoul is both rare and well-done.