Titus Andronicus, The Time Machine, Soylent Green, Sweeney Todd, Motel Hell, Fried Green Tomatoes, Silence of the Lambs. Cannibalism: an audience favorite for at least half a millennium.
Beyond the frisson of vicariously indulging in the ultimate taboo, the serving and eating of human flesh often makes for easily digestible social commentary. In the case of Eating Raoul, Paul Bartel’s satire of ‘70s culture and cinematic stereotypes, the helping may cause heartburn.
Paul and Mary Bland dream of opening a restaurant in the country. They’ve even picked out a house. They just need a way to find the money to buy it. When Paul loses his job clerking in a liquor store, and Mary is turned down for a bank loan, the couple settles on a get-rich-quick scheme to raise the funds: they lure victims to their apartment with classified ads offering kinky sex, then kill and rob them. Eventually they join forces with Raoul, an ambitious thief who has a plan for disposing of the bodies.
The couple are squares on a moral mission who relish the opportunity to knock off sex-crazed Los Angelinos like the swingers who share their apartment complex. They sleep in separate single beds in accordance with the depiction of married couples in’50s American film and television. They’re judgmental prudes.
Paul (director and co-writer Paul Bartel) and Mary (Mary Woronov) inhabit a world full of stereotypes and grotesques. Because Eating Raoul is told from the perspective of the Blands, their world view accounts for the one-dimensionality of the endless supply of extras who look like they wandered over from an episode of Love American Style, or in the case of Raoul (Robert Beltran), a ‘70s exploitation film. “I’m a hot-blooded, emotional, crazy Chicano”, he announces, as if reading the stage direction from a bad movie script: “Enter Raoul, a hot-blooded, emotional, crazy Chicano”.
All of the characters are types, even Paul and Mary, the Puritanic smug marrieds. “Everybody looked bad”, says Beltran in defense of Raoul’s stereotypic qualities, in one of three interviews shot for the Criterion edition (the other two are with Woronov and actress Edie McClurg).
And yet the Blands are anything but, and have our sympathy from the beginning of the film. Paul is fired for refusing to sell swill to a customer. Mary, a hospital nurse, torments a patient who won’t stop harassing her. They live in a ‘50s-themed apartment, which comes across as quirky and cool, like Paul’s ginger-colored suit and bow tie. Paul possesses a collection of fine wine, which the couple reluctantly consider selling for quick cash. He’s a sad sack and she’s a survivor, but they both have taste and principles, so when they finally figure out a way to realize their dream, we find ourselves cheering them on no matter what the cost.
The film’s carefully rendered dramatic irony can take multiple viewings to work out. That’s often the case with films that achieve cult status—and the heart of their appeal: they create an in group who get the joke, and non-initiates who don’t. Take Bartel’s 1966 short Secret Cinema (included on the Criterion DVD). It takes self-conscious filmmaking to an extreme. A woman discovers her life is being scripted and filmed, then screened for an audience of her friends and acquaintances, in a hilarious, yet disturbing tale of paranoia.
“It’s so New York”, Woronov says of the film in a 1982 interview with the two stars of Eating Raoul (also on the DVD). Her comment captures the insider / outsider dynamic of the film, and of Eating Raoul. The smug audience members who leave a screening within the short might as well be aficionados enjoying another viewing of Eating Raoul.
So how about that social commentary? In retrospect, the film provides a bookend on pre-AIDS American (especially Californian) culture, and the arc of movies that documented the excesses of the ‘70s, as well as a preview of ‘80s cultural preoccupations. Mary and Paul dismiss the grotesques that they dispatch as expendable because they have surrendered to their animal appetites, all the while oblivious to their own urges—for money and success.
Their brief homicidal career enables the couple to retreat to a place where they set the menu and regain control of their lives. Eating Raoul thus offers a glimpse of the yearning for a return to basics and authenticity that marked the ‘80s, alongside the entrepreneurial ruthlessness of the decade’s corporate culture. Raoul displays the same drive. Beltran says he channeled the “obsession” at the heart of George C. Scott’s performance in Dr. Strangelove for his portrayal of Raoul.
In the essay he penned for the release, David Ehrenstein calls the Blands’ platonic, retro relationship “radical”, in light of the post–sexual revolution ‘70s. Radical by the old standards, yes, but perfectly in keeping with the emerging order, in which a patina of old-fashioned morality cloaks an amoral rapaciousness still ascendant in American culture. (Beltran is quite eloquent on the film’s continuing relevance in this regard.) Paul and Mary’s Country Kitchen is still open for business. Call ahead; you’ll need a reservation.