Even if you’re not a film connoisseur, odds are you’re at least aware of the Criterion Collection. For the casual filmgoer, it’s the company that sells those overpriced, overdesigned “collectors editions” of foreign movies you’ve never heard of at Barnes and Noble. For the dedicated, out-and-proud film snob, they’re the last bastion of civilized cinephilia, restoring and preserving true artistic masterpieces and holding the door against bloated Hollywood excess. Regardless of your opinion (mine falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes), it’s inarguable that Criterion puts a lot of work into their releases. The time, dedication, and obvious love they have for their reissues is matched perhaps only by Scream Factory and Arrow. Too, it’s hard to argue that, were it not for Criterion, a lot of cinematic masterpieces would be inaccessible to today’s audiences; if you see that a movie’s gotten a Criterion release, you better believe there’s something important about it. The director was a pioneer of some sort, or it has groundbreaking visual effects, or it captured a special time and place in history. If a film is released through Criterion, it means something.
Ladies and gentlemen of Heard Tell, I give you Eating Raoul.
Eating Raoul is, perhaps, the unlikeliest movie to ever get a Criterion release. When I heard that it was getting a reissue back in 2012, I was equal parts delighted and confused. Delighted because the movie was one of the cornerstones of my exploitation education. I’d grown up seeing the VHS at Hollywood Video, wondering what was so strange about the movie in the seemingly innocuous burn-your-eyes-out-yellow box that it was buried in the “Cult” section at the back of the store. When I turned sixteen and my parents gave me carte blanche rental privileges (thanks, mom!), it was among the first “grown up” movies I got. Soon after, a Raoul VHS of dubious quality became one of the decorative staples of my bedroom, staying there through high school and my first few years of college.
In light of the other stuff I was renting at the time, and where my interests in subversive cinema would eventually lead, Raoul was (and remains) tame stuff. Paul and Mary Bland (director Paul Bartel and frequent co-star/lifelong friend/Worhol Superstar Mary Woronov) are a hyper-conservative couple hoping to open a fine dining restaurant. Sleeping in separate beds and shying away from even the appearance of impropriety, they’re decidedly at odds with the rest of the tenants in their building, who seem to be in the throes of a 24/7 orgy. At the outset of the film, the couple is on the brink of securing a loan for their restaurant when Paul’s snobbery results in him getting fired from his job at a cut-rate liquor store. They’re in the midst of trying to overcome this setback when one of their building’s more aggressive tenants takes advantage of an unlocked door and tries to assault Mary. She’s saved at the last minute by a returning Paul, who bludgeons the pervert to death with a cast-iron skillet. Discovering that the guy was carrying around several hundred dollars in cash—and realizing that, despite constantly boning, the people in their building have no meaningful relationships or even friendships—the couple hit upon a warped get-rich-quick scheme: They’ll put out personal ads as a sexually adventurous couple looking for wealthy, single men, then kill and rob them, disposing of the bodies down their apartment’s trash compactor. Initially, the plot is a success, and they’re able to rack up the big-bucks whilst simultaneously disposing of the sleaziest scumbags early 80s L.A. has to offer, from zoophiles to Nazi fetishists. Things hit a snag, though, with the appearance of Raoul (Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Beltran), a burglar who uncovers the Blands’ plan while trying to rob them. Smooth-talking, sociopathic, and enamored of Mary, Raoul offers to add his criminal expertise to the enterprise in exchange for a cut. The Blands hesitantly agree, and as they become richer than they could’ve hoped for, the stage is set for a showdown between Paul and Raoul, with the fortune—and Mary—as the prize.
Coming from Paul Bartel, the man who gave us the story of a love affair between a young serial killer and his translucent, blood-filled sex doll (1972’s Private Parts), Eating Raoul is as unlikely a piece of social commentary as you’re apt to watch—mainly because it takes a few viewings for it to sink in. Ironically, while some opening narration in the style of a 1960s hygiene film explicitly tells the audience that what they’re about to see is meant as a satire, that bit of explicit exposition is quickly lost in the movie’s more surreal elements. Eating Raoul is first and foremost a comedy, and on that mark, it succeeds. I’m not going to discuss any comic set pieces because I wouldn’t want to ruin them, though Bartel inexplicably spoils the film’s last (and best) gag with the very title. Buried beneath all that sex and cannibalism, though, is an unexpected thesis from an openly gay filmmaker working in the Reagan 80s: while the newfound conservative culture of the decade may not have been a great thing, maybe the sexual revolution wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be, either.
Eating Raoul is nothing if not a call for moderate perversion. While the movie is justly condemnatory of its’ myriad rapists, sadists, and psychos, it casts just as critical an eye on its’ sex-obsessed swingers. Paul and Mary may be terminally uptight, but they do have a valid grievance. The people in their building really are a bunch of maniacs who keep the halls, elevators, and stairwells perpetually flooded with couplings of every permutation and who’re constantly trying to force the Blands to join in the festivities, whether they like it or not. You get the impression that the couple really would live and let live if only everyone else would return the favor. The only one who comes away looking totally good is Paul and Mary’s unwitting mentor, Doris, a pleasant dominatrix who lives in the ‘burbs and enjoys an even more domestic home life than the Blands. Though we’re introduced to her in a leather getup, cracking a whip, she’s just as comfortable in a floral blouse, feeding her baby and watching soaps on TV. Notably, Doris alone escapes the Blands’ wrath—we get the impression that they’re not just sparing her because she’s a vital source of information on the sexual underground, but because they genuinely like her, and because Bartel, as a director, likes her too. She’s sexually liberated, but she’s also a person—the other swingers and freaks that populate Raoul are wholly defined by their sex lives, having seemingly subsumed every aspect of their personalities to their quest for more genitals.
Similarly, while Raoul ostensibly has more in common with the Blands’ victims than Paul or Mary, deep down, he turns out to be every bit as conservative as they are. Raoul may be a pot-smoking gigolo, but he still expects Mary to keep his house and bear his children once he’s whacked Paul. In their final confrontation, Raoul even dons a blue suit, a visual callback to the red jacket Paul wears in the first half of the film. It’s a subtle yet effective jab at the proponents of the sexual revolution who wanted to free women insomuch as they were free to please them (or, as Chester Anderson put it, “Rape [was] as common as bullshit on Haight Ashbury”). While the myth of the utopian hippie and the wacky, free-love 70s persists even into the 21st century, Bartel knew there was a misogynistic streak a mile wide running beneath all the tie-dye and leisure suits—that while they may have marched for peace in Vietnam, the counter-culturists weren’t so much eschewing their parents’ mores as they were fine-tuning them to fit their own desires. Tellingly, the Bland’s most violent “client” turns out to be an aging hippie who attempts to rape and murder Mary after she tries to send him away, prompting Raoul to strangle him to death. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the unmasking of the 60s myth, though it comes at the hands of just as dangerous a mentality hiding behind just as destructive a veneer of “liberation.” Though Paul may abhor the swingers in his apartment and Raoul sees himself as apart from them, at the end of the day, they all have far more in common with each other than any party would like to admit.
I’m making this all sound very political, and, to a large extent, it isn’t. Saying that Eating Raoul should be seen first and foremost for its’ assessment of socio-sexual norms in 1982 is like saying that The Godfather should be watched primarily for its’ insight into different modes of masculinity. It’s in there, sure, but, it’s more the icing than the cake. Raoul is, after all, a movie whose plot is kicked off with the exchange, “I just killed a man.” “He was a man. Now he’s just a bag of garbage.” Regardless of what it says, Raoul is ultimately, a very funny movie about stuffy folks killing swingers. Despite that opening screed, Bartel understood the meaning of subtext, and you’ve got to look past a lot of enjoyable wackiness to find the commentary for which Criterion apparently acquired the film.
Or maybe they just wanted to brag that they put out a cannibal sex comedy.