Paul Bartel is not a household name. He had a respectable enough career as a bit actor in a number of TV and film roles and established a solid working partnership with Mary Woronov, a former Andy Warhol “superstar,” with which they were commonly paired as husband-and-wife. Bartel was openly gay in a historical time period that wasn’t particularly welcoming to that orientation; but Bartel found success in a field that wouldn’t judge him for his sexual preference, finding a fair middle-ground to both work in and be himself in the world of independent cinema.
But Bartel’s sexuality isn’t the focus of this essay, nor is it a particularly interesting avenue to perambulate to read his films: from the 11 independent features Bartel directed, including the (very macho, if not masochistic) cult classic Death Race 2000 to Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, in which a large plot point hinges on sexual relations between two men, his work easily exists outside of sexual orientation politics–or at least should, for the sake of its art. After all, artists can create their work independent of their sexual identity, or at least narratives can exist separate from authorial identity.
This is placed at the front of this essay on the 1982 black comedy Eating Raoul for a reason: written, directed by, and starring Bartel, this disclaimer is an attempt to dispel notions of biographical influence over what the Eating Raoul’s “statement” may be. Instead, Eating Raoul is a great cult comedy that satirizes sexual quadrants and ideologies in American culture circa 1982. Square, straight, married heterosexuals; degenerate, alcohol-fuelled, oversexed swingers; shifty grifters; violent strangers; and the great lost depraved denizens of Los Angeles alike are depicted with increasing ferocity as the film goes on, ending at a morally confusing point where the viewer isn’t sure what absolute behavior is being supported–or if any points of view in this rocky landscape are. Perhaps it simply exists to entertain and made Bartel laugh when he wrote it. If this is true–and this neutral read of the film outside of the author’s biography is authentic–then he succeeded in aces.
The reality Eating Raoul posits is a cheap, gross one where the so-called morally absolute are the unpleasant heroes of the tale: Paul and Mary Bland (Bartel and Woronov), a husband-and-wife who dream of opening up a restaurant but are stuck in low-paying, demeaning (to their sensibilities) jobs, living in an apartment complex overflowing with drunken swingers whose overt sexuality perpetually offends their seemingly sexless cohabitation (for example: although a married couple, they sleep in separate twin beds).
But Eating Raoul still posits these two chaste protagonists as in the moral right, even when they first murder: after all, a swinger breaks in and attempts to rape Mary, only for Paul to discover this and smash his head in with a cast iron frying pan. This proves a lucrative move, since the swinger was loaded with cash and both are financially struggling and wanting to open up their own restaurant. So they make a deal: they will lure and murder wealthy swingers into their apartment and then murder them and take their cash.
This goes well enough until locksmith Raoul fits their apartment with new locks and–since he also breaks into the homes of the people he just serviced–comes across their scheme. They strike a deal: Raoul will keep their operation secret if he can sell the corpses to a dog food company (and he also steals the victim’s cars).
But things get complicated when Mary is seduced by Raoul, who introduces her to marijuana and opens her up sexually. Raoul falls for Mary and eventually demands that she makes a choice: either him or the bland Paul. The end result? Well, the film’s not called Eating Raoul for nothing.
Eating Raoul is a pitch-black comedy that satirizes large swaths of American culture at the time, both left and right: neither the drunken hedonism of the libertine lifestyle nor the repressed conservatives are left unscathed in the film, while taken as a whole the film is largely amoral. The Blands may be hypocrites, but at least they stand for something; when Mary is corrupted, she enjoys herself sexually (for once) and for a while seems amenable to some aspects of the promiscuous lifestyle. Ironically, Paul Bland is a wine aficionado but finds excesses of any sort distasteful, while Raoul is a chaotic neutral that is only trying to fine-tune his approach with The Blands as he clues into what they seem to desire most.
It’s a tricky landscape that the film treads and few films since have tried to dance along such a subjective, moral gray zone. Are The Blands the villains of the film or are they just adapting to a degenerate world? Is Raoul a good or bad guy, or do these absolute labels not apply in this world? It’s never made clear and the film doesn’t seem interested in making these distinctions. Making the audience morbidly chuckle along with the caricatures being drawn for them seems to be the main point, and it’s here that the film is most successful.
Eating Raoul is a funny film, after all: it wouldn’t have survived for so many decades as a cult comedy without delivering on its promise of being a comedy. And it’s this aspect that it finds its greatest strength: by being an outright bizarre film but somehow finding a balance between its morbid premise and its comedic nature.
Maybe the humor comes from its cynical, disaffected tone, or from the zany comedy that springs from its gross premise, or that the characters and performances are themselves funny and the satire is particularly acidic. It’s most likely a combination of all three attributes from which Eating Raoul succeeds best: by being a cult movie that cult movie fans can point newbies towards in this hazily defined genre as a place to start to understand the appeal of films that have landed outside of the mainstream but have retained favor with cinephiles for decades after their release–a tabula rosa of what defines a cult movie or at least bares significant codifiers that signal not just what of, but why films become cult in the first place.
As for the film’s writer/director/star, Paul Bartel died at 61 in 2000 of a heart attack after liver cancer surgery. He had an active career up to that point, and in fact his last role was as “Dad” to Mary Woronov’s “Mom” in a TV movie, an ironically fitting end to have his last gig with his long-standing on-screen “partner” who played his wife in Eating Raoul. His filmography now stands as an impressive resume of a person who lived outside of convention and created films on his own terms. While he directed several cult classics, Eating Raoul is perhaps his most fitting: a dark satire on class, capitalism, sexuality, and American life itself, Bartel created a lasting cult classic that will continue on for decades as both a biting commentary of its time and place and a black comedy that fans will enjoy and pass on to like-minded film fans for generations to come.