Paul Bartel is one of those character actors whose face most regular filmgoers over the age of 35 (he died in 2000) will likely recognise but few would be able to name. Those who do know his name might also be aware that he’s got quite a few cult favourite directing credits to his name. In fact, he started out as a director before he got into acting. He originally wanted to direct animated films when he was a teenager but moved into live-action work as his career progressed. His debut short as director was Secret Cinema (included on this disc) and this, along with his follow-up Naughty Nurse (also included), proved strong enough to get Bartel noticed by Roger Corman’s brother Gene, who hired him to direct the kinky comedy-horror Private Parts. This led to more work for Gene’s New World Pictures, including some of Roger Corman’s productions, most notably the cult classic Death Race 2000, which Bartel directed.
When Bartel and co-writer Richard Blackburn approached Roger Corman with the script for Eating Raoul though, he declined. Undeterred, Bartel raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars (along with his parents, who sold their house) and made the film independently. It proved to be a sleeper hit on the art-house circuit and has remained a bit of a cult classic for the last 37 years. The Criterion Collection have deemed it worthy of addition to their fine range of Blu-rays here in the UK and, having it sat on my watch list for about 20 years after it featured as the ‘Best American Comedy’ in a favourite film guide I used to swear by (a freebie in the long-defunct Neon magazine), I jumped at the chance to see it and share my thoughts.
Eating Raoul sees Bartel play Paul Bland, a wine connoisseur who loses his job at a low-rent liquor store. He’s in a sexless, but not loveless, marriage to Mary (Mary Woronov, a long-time collaborator of Bartel’s – they acted in 17 films together), who’s an attractive nurse that’s regularly harassed by her patients. The pair have a dream to open their own restaurant and are almost ready to move into their ideal location, but Paul’s job loss and a sudden, sharp increase in rent at their apartment dashes all hope of making it happen. However, when the couple ends up killing a pair of sex-crazed swingers who are trying to rape Mary on separate occasions and find quite a lot of money in their wallets, it gives them an idea. They put a raunchy sex-ad in the paper and take bookings for kinky sessions, then kill the ‘Johns’ before Mary has to actually sleep with them.
This routine is going fairly well until the swindling locksmith Raoul (Robert Beltran) stumbles across their scheme whilst breaking into their apartment. Rather than calling the police, however, he wants in on it, promising them more profit from the acts than they’re currently getting. They go along with the idea (they don’t have much choice, really) and it earns them more money, as promised, but Paul is suspicious of Raoul’s intentions, particularly towards his wife. Indeed, Raoul does lust over Mary and the pair have a few illicit encounters. This leads the Mexican con-artist to try to get Paul pushed out of the picture, whilst Paul tries to do the same to Raoul.
Eating Raoul didn’t quite live up to my 20 years of expectation that it would be the ‘Best American Comedy’ ever made, but I did enjoy it quite a lot. Like many good comedies, I imagine it will benefit from repeat viewings too. Listening to the commentary, the memory of scenes playing out was making me smile, which suggested this. The odd tone and low budget approach can also take a little while to get used to. With a style a little similar to the work of John Waters (who was reportedly due to cameo in the film but didn’t in the end), the performances are notably heightened and the crass and lewd is contrasted with the bland (that surname is no mistake) and ‘wholesome’.
This contrast embodies the film’s key drive, the satirising of the American middle class. The central couple, in their minds, live out the perfect puritanical marriage. They sleep in separate beds and care most about earning money to live out their dreams. Their biggest hatred is of the ‘swingers’ who seem to have taken over L.A, where they live. ‘Perverted’ sexual behaviour disgusts them, yet they believe murdering these people and taking their money is absolutely fine. They barely bat an eyelid after they dispatch each victim, only concerning themselves with how much is in their wallets. It’s an extreme but enjoyable stab at the hypocrisy of the greedy, selfish middle classes who are shocked by a bit of nudity but believe screwing other people over to get what they want is a perfectly acceptable necessity.
Reflecting this idea and the attitudes of its central characters, the film is bloodless in its murder sequences, keeping them neat and clean, without any fuss. The bodies are kept in fresh bin bags and Paul’s weapon of choice is a large skillet/frying pan which helps bring a cartoon-like tone to proceedings. The sexual aspects of the film are generally played for laughs too, with only a couple of scenes that might be called titillating. This isn’t quite the trashy nonsense it might look like at first glance.
That said, Eating Raoul is hardly a dry, intellectual film. It is a riotously irreverent and off-beat comedy at heart, from a filmmaker coming straight off a stint making low-budget genre movies for Roger Corman. In this respect, it’s short, sharp and successful, though I wouldn’t say I was laughing out loud, so perhaps it’s lost a little of its edge over the years. Comedies work best with a larger audience though (I watched it on my own at home) and, as I said earlier, they often best suit repeated viewings when you look forward to the punchlines and discover more gems within the zinger-filled dialogue.
There are some fun performances too. Bartel and Woronov have great chemistry together as you’d suspect, but it’s the range of character actors cropping up in minor roles that steal the show. Susan Saiger is great as Doris the Dominatrix and Ed Begley Jr. has a fun scene as a client who gets off on hippy role-play.
Overall then, it’s an oddball, low-brow yet bitingly satirical comedy that regularly hits the mark. It’s perhaps not uproariously funny anymore, but it’s still a streamlined and highly enjoyable romp. It won’t suit all tastes, but those with the palate for it are in for a treat.
Eating Raoul is out on 21st October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks and sounds great, as is to be expected from the label.
There are a fair few special features included:
– New, restored digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Gary Thieltges, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
– Audio commentary featuring screenwriter Richard Blackburn, production designer Robert Schulenberg, and editor Alan Toomayan
– The Secret Cinema (1968) and Naughty Nurse (1969), two short films by director Paul Bartel
– Cooking Up “Raoul,” a new documentary about the making of the film, featuring interviews with stars Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, and Edie McClurg
– Gag reel of outtakes from the film
– Archival interview with Bartel and Woronov
– PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic David Ehrenstein
It’s an enjoyable collection of supplementary material. The commentary is fun, with the group of contributors giving it a fast pace with no down-time, loading the track with anecdotes about the low budget production and hidden Easter eggs within the film. Lots of filmmaker friends and crew members played cameos and background parts for instance. The new documentary and archive interviews are great too, providing a further look at the production.
Possibly my favourite addition to the set though is The Secret Cinema, Bartel’s debut short film. It’s a wonderfully paranoid and enjoyable post-modern comedy that played out The Truman Show’s concept, of a character being the unwilling star of a sort of ‘docu-soap’, 30 years prior. The other short, Naughty Nurse was a bit more flimsy in my opinion but it’s nice to have it included.