Paul (Paul Bartel) and Mary (Mary Woronov) Bland are a middle-aged couple with a simple dream. They want to open their own restaurant. But Paul’s work as a clerk in a wine shop and Mary’s nursing career are not helping them make the down-payment. Worse, pushy swingers have taken over their apartment building.
These unwelcome, sex-mad neighbors are too loud, make fun of Paul, and leer at Mary. When one of them pushes his way into the Bland’s apartment, Paul accidentally kills him — which gives him and Mary a wonderful fundraising idea. The couple, whose relationship is happily sexless, start placing ads in local newspapers to attract swingers. Mary leads them on while Paul conks them on the noggin and picks their pockets.
Enter Raoul, a career criminal (Robert Beltran, familiar to many from Star Trek: Voyager). Raoul recognizes immediately that Paul and Mary aren’t maximizing their profits from each murder, and offers to help them out. He, too, becomes obsessed with Mary, threatening the enterprise and the Bland’s marriage.
Yes, Eating Raoul is a dark sex comedy about mass murder and (no spoilers, it’s in the name) cannibalism. It’s light, sweet, even charming. Most of the interior sets have a bright, plastic-like feel to them that might put you in mind of sitcoms or sketch comedy. Scenes are framed and shot like a sitcom (although there’s fortunately no soundtrack) and the stakes remain low.
Many brief descriptions of the film call Paul and Mary “prudes” — or worse, “conservative.” I have a hard time seeing it. When Paul stops by the neighbor’s apartment to complain about the loud orgy, he doesn’t seem particularly fazed or offended by the nudity and sex. A dominatrix pushes a business card at him, which he absently pockets. Mary finds it a bit later.
“Doris the Dominatrix, ” she reads out loud. “Discipline mild or severe, as you require.”
“Oh that,” responds Paul. “She’s some madwoman who attacks people with a whip.”
This puzzles but does not concern Mary or trigger any jealousy. In fact, it’s Doris they turn to when they need someone to explain the ins and outs of sex work. So no, as near as I can tell, Paul and Mary aren’t prudes. Perhaps, today we’d call them an asexual couple, surrounded by people who seem to assume there’s something wrong with them for not joining in the orgies.
Criterion released the copy of Eating Raoul that I watched. Included on the disc were two early Paul Bartel shorts. The Secret Cinema is the story of Jane, a member of an office pool whose life is being secretly filmed and edited into comedy shorts shown at the movies. All the hardship and awkwardness she endures — up to and including the constant sexual harassment from her boss — is scripted for laughs. At least one scene in this film feels very similar to a scene in Eating Raoul, where a loan officer pressures Mary to trade sexual favors for a bank loan.
Cameos abound for a decidedly niche audience. John Paragon, Jambi the Genie from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Elvira’s writer, gets a fantastic scene as a pushy sex-shop owner. And fellow Groundling Edie McClurg plays host to an orgy like it’s a Tupperware party.
Susan Saiger, the Dominatrix, doesn’t have much in the way of film credits, but apparently did a lot of improv work in Los Angeles before taking an eighteen-year break. She’s hilarious in the role. Saiger is upstaged at least once by a toddler in a high chair, who can make the most amazing faces.
Ultimately, it’s easy to see why this movie attained cult status but little more. It’s campy, cheesy, and grim. It’s easy to see the entire production as a stage play. But most important, it treats asexuality with a surprising amount of affection. The outsider’s view of sex is not one we usually see, and it might be uncomfortable or threatening for some folks to see themselves reflected poorly here.