Writer-director Paul Bartel’s 1982 black comedy Eating Raoul has received The Criterion Collection treatment, decked out with a host of interesting extra features. Bartel, who died in 2000, was also a quirky actor with a wide variety of roles to his credit. Prior to Eating Raoul, Bartel’s best known film as a director was the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000. He stars in Raoul as Paul Bland, a snobby wine connoisseur who hopes to open a restaurant with his wife, Mary (Mary Woronov).
The key to enjoying the film is embracing its intentionally tacky visual sense, deliberately stylized acting, and broad social satire. The Blands are a pair of uptight prudes, terrified by the increasingly frequent swinger parties being held in their apartment building. They sleep in separate twin beds, rarely engaging in any physical contact. They’re also struggling financially, but Paul doesn’t even want to consider parting with any of his prized bottles of wine in order to help pay the bills. Both of them are incredibly sexually repressed, though it’s more understandable for Mary. She works as a nurse and her patients can’t keep their hands off her. In addition to being constantly groped at work, she’s even the victim of a rape attempt in her own home.
In fact, that rape attempt is a turning point in the film. Paul kills the would-be rapist, who happens to be a swinger, by whacking him on the head with a frying pan. After discovering that the dead swinger is loaded with cash, inspiration strikes. The Blands go on a homicidal spree, hosting fake “swinger parties.” Their only goal with these events is killing the so-called deviant perverts who answer their ads, taking their money to fund their planned restaurant. A locksmith named Raoul (Robert Beltran) gets involved in their scheme after he accidentally discovers a dead body while trying to rob the Blands’ apartment. He agrees to keep quiet about their scheme in exchange for a piece of the action.
If any of this is intriguing, the rest of the plot is much better left to the viewer to discover. Eating Raoul is kind of a like a less outrageous John Waters movie (think early Waters, i.e. Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble). Those with a taste for slightly bizarre comedy will likely find much to laugh at. I think the film probably seemed far more outré in 1982. Contemporary audiences are likely to find the whole thing a little quaint by today’s standards. Though it’s somewhat dark thematically, the movie is never mean-spirited and manages to maintain a fun, good-natured tone.
Criterion’s DVD edition includes an audio commentary by co-screenwriter Richard Blackburn, production designer Robert Schulenberg, and editor Alan Toomayan. The three were recorded together for a very chatty, often funny track that includes a great deal of insight and background. A 25-minute featurette “Cooking Up Raoul” includes new interviews with cast members sharing their recollections of making the film. The short gag reel is exactly what you’d expect and is actually pretty amusing. A pair of Bartel’s early short films, The Secret Cinema from 1966 and Naughty Nurse from ’69, offer additional, seldom-seen looks at the director’s work. The DVD booklet is cleverly designed to look like a menu for Paul and Mary’s restaurant, Country Kitchen.
Eating Raoul is a strange little comedy that has become inevitably less shocking in the 30 years that have passed since its original release. However, its anything-goes, unhinged style has kept it worth watching, especially for those with a taste for something a little different. Criterion’s extras-packed disc offers a perfect reason to revisit the Blands.