Thursday, May 9, 2013

Swing on Over for Some Murder in EATING RAOUL

Eating Raoul (1982)
Director: Paul Bartel
Rating: 7 / 10
Source: CBS/Fox VHS

For the next entry in It Came From the Thrift Store, let's head back to Hollywood in an entirely unintentional followup to Avenging Angel. Eating Raoul also involves loads of murder and comedy, although the humor here is a little more deliberate. I was pretty oblivious to its existence when I picked this tape up. The insinuated cannibalism on the cover was more than enough to get me interested though. What a pleasant surprise that this is the work of Paul Bartel, probably best known directorially for his masterpiece Death Race 2000, and as an actor in countless weird cinema gems. If that wasn't enough, it also stars cult film icon Mary Woronov, who's been a staple of genre film since the 70's, and is also a Death Race 2000 alum. Shortly after I bought this tape, I read that the Criterion collection had picked up Eating Raoul, which only increased my curiosity.

The film starts off with a great voice-over introduction that sets the stage by telling us just how far into debauchery Hollywood has fallen. Words won't do it justice, just watch:

In the midst of all this, we're introduced to Paul and Mary Bland (played by Bartel and Woronov), a truly boring middle-class couple whose interests involve collecting rare wines and planning the opening of their restaurant, which they intend to call "Paul and Mary's Country Kitchen." (Gag.) They've decked out their apartment in furniture from the 50's (on loan from Grandma), and sleep in separate beds. Dull people like this couldn't be less interested in the infestation of swingers who have taken over their apartment building. These sex-crazed lunatics harass Paul and Mary at every opportunity and harass them incessantly until Paul snaps and kills one with a frying pan.

They seemed like such a nice couple.
After discovering hundreds of dollars in the man's wallet, they begin to think that murder may be a more lucrative enterprise than they ever imagined. Could this be the solution to obtaining the funding for their restaurant in light of their recently failed attempt at a bank loan? It seems to be, and to attract more pervs to their apartment, the duo run an ad for a fake dominatrix service in the paper. Business takes off and all seems to be going fine, at least until they become involved with a crooked locksmith named Raoul. Raoul isn't fooled by their act, and after witnessing a murder, offers to help dispose of the corpses. As he becomes more involved with the couple, he breaks through Mary's tough shell, threatening the stability of her lifeless marriage with Paul.

Eating Raoul is a freewheeling comedy centered around some pretty dark humor, but despite the descent into murder and perversion it almost always stays colorful and light-hearted. Adding to the hilarity is how well Bartel's straight-laced portrayal of Paul contrasts with the rest of the film. One of my favorite scenes is when he shows up at a sex shop with a grocery list of items and politely tells the clerk "I would like a cock ring, please." Woronov's intrinsic weirdness also works well when Mary turns out to be something of a closet freak and falls for the far more interesting Raoul over her husband. The clash between Paul and Mary and over-the-top parade of swingers and sex maniacs that make up the duo's clientele is entertaining, even if it's not quite as shocking in the internet age as it might have been in the early 80's. Still, lampooning both the chaste couple who are stuck in the 50's and the sexually liberated populace of Hollywood provides more than enough entertainment.

[Spoilers ahead]

The last act of the film is where Eating Raoul sort of falters.  As close as Mary gets to breaking free from her sexually stifling marriage with Paul, she never gains the courage to fully rid herself of him. She's willing to dabble in whatever kink her customers (or Raoul) ask her to, and she'll even enjoy it. But as a lifestyle - no thanks. On the film's IMDB page, I stumbled across a user description of the film as a "straight John Waters movie," which is a great way to sum it up (but sort of weird since Bartel is gay). Despite how outlandish and reckless the sex and violence gets, it's always reined in by the fact that our protagonists are a straight white middle-class couple. It gives the film sort of a disconcertingly conservative feel that's at odds with the subject matter. Thankfully, Bartel is smart enough to spin it to make the point that success in the business world is built through exploitation and treachery. I just wish the main characters weren't the ones doing the exploiting!

[End spoilers]

The Good:

Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov are great, as is Robert Beltran as Raoul.

The film has a lot of fun with its subject matter, and Bartel's gleeful insanity as a director often shines through.

The Bad:

Not nearly enough cannibalism.

We're supposed to cheer for the boring people.

...the Hell?

Were swingers really a big thing in the 70's and 80's, or are they just a symbol of sexual excess? I've been noticing them lately in a lot of films from the era, including TerrorVision, which also starred Mary Woronov...

The Verdict

I initially had some mixed feelings about Eating Raoul, but after thinking about it, I've been won over. Despite its seeming insistence that we root for the normal folks as they kill all the freaks, there's an equal focus on how awfully repressed and terrible the Blands are. Bartel and Woronov do a great job at making them likable even if you usually hate their actions. I'm glad Eating Raoul has gotten the Criterion treatment, and might check out that release just for the extras. In the meantime, there's this interview.

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