Most retro movie lovers have probably heard of the 1982 cult comedy Eating Raoul, even though they probably haven't seen it. Released on the art house circuit by a major studio (Fox), the independently made production was considered quite shocking in its day due to its unapologetic emphasis on distasteful humor. The film was the brainchild of actor/director Paul Bartel, who by 1982 had been laboring in B movie hell for many years, often working with Roger Corman. Bartel was frustrated by Corman's refusal to finance any of his proposed projects so he went off and developed the script for Eating Raoul with his friend, screenwriter Richard Blackburn (who also appears in the film). The endeavor proved to be the epitome of gutsy, independent movie-making. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable budget of $500,000, Bartel scraped together funding from any sources he could find and took a loan out from his parents. To save money, he often shot scenes on remnants of celluloid, leaving him precious little film stock to do retakes. He cast any number of friends for parts both large and small including such diverse talents as Buck Henry, Ed Begley Jr., Billy Curtis and Hamilton Camp. Even John Landis has a cameo. Bartel plays the lead role himself, possibly more out of financial necessity than vanity. He portrays Paul Bland, a pudgy, somewhat fey resident of Hollywood who is happily married to a sexy nurse, Mary (played by Bland's real-life friend and frequent collaborator and co-star Mary Waronov.) Their marriage seems to be a sexless relationship of convenience, with both treating the other more like a sibling than a spouse. Both Paul and Mary share many similarities, however. They are both quite eccentric and very judgmental of middle class values even though they are facing financial ruin and seem unlikely to fulfill their mutual dream of opening a quaint country restaurant. Paul is an elitist, albeit a poor one. He loses his job in a local liquor store because he can't bring himself to recommend a cheap but profitable wine to customers. The Blands also fancy themselves as morally superior to those around them. When they discover that a neighboring apartment is being used by a group of swingers, they can barely hide their disgust (even though Paul is somewhat entranced by a dominatrix at the party.) Through a bizarre accident, the Blands end up accidentally killing a sexually aggressive swinger who wants to get it on with Mary. They casually dispose of the body and keep his cash to help raise the down payment needed for their restaurant. Suddenly, an outrageous scheme begins to take form: the Blands will lure other swingers into their apartment, murder them and keep their money. The plan works well, with Mary using her considerable charms to entice a seemingly endless number of gullible men to their doom. (This being long before the internet, the Blands are forced to advertise their perversions the old fashioned way: through ads in porn newspapers.) Before long, Paul and Mary are raising substantial sums of money and are closing in on their financial goal. Then they meet Raoul, a hunky Chicano petty criminal, who joins them as a partner with the promise of increased profits. It isn't long before he is attracted to Mary and this leads to some funny and complicated situations. To say more would be to reveal too much.
Over the years, Eating Raoul (yes, the film does take on a Soylent Green-like spin, albeit in a comedic mode) has developed a sizable and loyal cult following. The movie doesn't quite live up to the hype. It's never embarrassing but often doesn't rise to its potential. Bartel makes an amusing screen presence, but his delivery at times comes across somewhat amateurish. The scene-stealer is the magnetic Waronov, who commands the screen with her magnetism. Robert Beltran is also excellent as the titular Raoul, an overly-confident, smug lady's man whose obsession with Mary proves to have some very negative consequences. The funniest aspect of the film is the pure hypocrisy of the Blands. While looking down their nose at virtually everyone in their social circle, they lack any type of self-awareness. Thus, to them, people who swing are completely lacking in morality, but they fail to see that their own moral failings are far greater, as they have become serial killers without a hint of conscience. The film has many delightful comic interludes, such as Paul's shocking revenge against a hot tub full of swingers who dare to mock him. However, Bartel often encourages his actors to go over-the-top in their performances when a more subdued and realistic approach might have been more effective. Nevertheless, Bartel (who died in 2000 at the age of 61), deserves great praise for bringing off the most tasteless comedy audiences had seen since The Producers. It's fun throughout, even with a few sequences that don't live up to their potential.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of Eating Raoul is first rate throughout. The set contains a great looking transfer of the original film, a new documentary in which Beltran and Waronov discuss the production and their affection for Paul Bartel; audio commentary by Richard Blackburn, production designer Robert Schulenberg and editor Alan Toomayan; an awkwardly filmed 1982 archival interview with Bartel and Waronov; The Secret Cinema, a bizarre 1966 black and white film with a Twilight Zone-like spin (Bartel remade it as an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories in 1986); Naughty Nurse, a strikingly photographed 1969 short film that once again touches on Bartel's fascination with off beat sexual obsessions; a gag reel of takes that went awry and the original trailer (which unfairly doesn't credit Bartel by name for anything). There is also an insightful essay about the film by David Ehrenstein which is presented in a booklet designed to resemble a menu.
Eating Raoul is not a classic, but holds enough delights to merit adding this to your Blu-ray library.