Thursday, May 20, 2010

Eating Raoul (1982)

The Movie: Paul (the late, great, Paul Bartel, who also wrote and directed this movie) and Mary (the wonderful Mary Woronov) Bland are a nice, normal, conservative couple who live in Hollywood. Their dream is to open up their own restaurant; and they’ve even found the perfect place for it. Unfortunately, they lack the cash. To make matters worse, their lives are full of unscrupulous creeps who take advantage of them; as well as perverted swingers who won’t take no for an answer.

Things come to a head when they are taken advantage of a little too much; followed by having to defend Mary’s virtue with a frying pan from depraved swingers twice in a row. Finding money on the bodies of the swingers, the Blands come up with the perfect solution for their financial problems: lure in swingers, murder them with the frying pan, and steal their money. They can make the money they need, and rid the world of swingers at the same time. But just as they’re starting up, Raoul enters the picture.

Raoul (Robert Beltran from Night of the Comet and “Star Trek: Voyager”) is a professional thief who stumbles across the Blands’ operation. Handsome, charming and opportunistic; Raoul arranges a deal with the Blands that greatly increases their profit. Unfortunately, there is the small snag that Raoul has fallen for Mary. He manages to maneuver her into an affair, and the rivalry with Paul is on.

As the money piles up, along with the bodies; Paul and Raoul engage in a quiet but escalating competition for Mary’s affections. The efforts of the two men to eliminate each other will end very badly for one of them….

The Review:

Paul, no one is trying to kill you. We’re the one’s killing people.
-Mary Bland

As a writer, director, actor, producer, writer of soundtracks and the gods only know what else; Paul Bartel was definitely a very talented man. As an artist he was also very quirky; uniquely so, as I have yet to encounter a sense of humor like his. He has a very prolific amount of movies to his credit for the above mentioned roles that start this paragraph; and when he died in 2000 of a heart attack, the world of cinema lost someone truly amazing.

Since discovering Paul Bartel, I have been trying, with various degrees of success, to track down as much of his work as I can. As of yet, what I have seen is only a miniscule part. However, judging by what little I have seen; I would call Eating Raoul his masterpiece.

This is just my interpretation of it; I think that Eating Raoul is a satire on the early Reagan years. Admittedly I don’t remember too much of that period; I was barely a year old when this movie came out, if that. However, the movie seems to exaggerate the culture wars of the time. On the one side you have the extreme conservatives and right-wingers who the Reagan presidency brought out of the woodwork, represented by the Blands. The swingers, on the other end of the spectrum, represent two things. One is the last gasp of the Free-Love movement, by then dying out. The other is the hedonism that Reagan’s financial policies and focus on personal wealth inadvertently encouraged. After all, most of the swingers in the movie are bank owners and doctors and other extremely wealthy individuals.

The very best part of the movie, and its focus, are the three leads forming the love triangle at the center of the plot. Bartel and Woronov are perfect as the Blands, portraying a couple who represent the most absurd extremes of the America Reagan advertised. Just a look at their sleeping arrangements is creepy; they sleep in twin beds, they have matching pajamas, and Mary sleeps with stuffed animals while Paul cuddles a huge pillow in the shape of a bottle of wine. Almost everything about their personal lives exudes this sense of asexuality that’s, quite frankly, a little off-putting. Of course, like everything else in the America Reagan tried to sell, it’s a little too good to be true as we shall see.

Maybe in my movie synopsis, “nice” and “normal” were the wrong words to describe the Blands. It’s clear pretty quickly that Paul is a bit of a snob; while the scene at the hospital where Mary deals with a particularly obnoxious patient indicates that she’s not a woman to cross, even before they start killing. Also, the movie makes it clear that the Blands are hypocrites. They claim not to be into sex (“I can stand a little hugging and kissing” says Mary), and they believe that they are moral people. Yet, they commit murder; and they use what they claim to be against, sex, to lure their victims.

Mary’s an even worse hypocrite than Paul. Even though she protests and criticizes, it’s pretty clear Raoul doesn’t need to try very hard to seduce her. One even gets the sense that despite her denials, she knows very well what’s going on between Paul and Raoul; and she’s getting a kick out of playing them off each other.

Admittedly, the people the Blands prey on are, on the whole, pretty repulsive themselves. They’re arrogant, they’re oblivious, they won’t take no for an answer, and they walk all over anybody they think they can get away with walking over. The world would be better off without most of them. It’s amazing how Bartel’s script ensures that you take the Blands' side, even while making it clear that they’re as bad as the people they’re killing.

Finally there is Raoul, the third corner of the triangle. In what is apparently his first starring role, Robert Beltran presents a character who is every bit as engaging as the Blands. Our first glimpse of Raoul is kind of a throwaway; we catch a glimpse of him in the background as the Blands return from the trash compacter where they disposed of their first victim. He’s creeping out of an apartment he has burgled. Later on, the Blands unwittingly hire him to replace the locks in their apartment; his scam for getting into the places he robs. He unwittingly stumbles into the Blands’ operation, and a bargain is struck.

Beltran’s Raoul is amazing. He is charming, witty, confident, and very good at what he does. He’s also, as Mary puts it, a calculating bastard. Admittedly, Raoul is a very “the ends justify the means” kind of person, but I find it hard to dislike him. He’s nowhere near as repulsive as the swingers; and unlike the Blands he is sincere about who he is and what he does. I think the one thing that makes Raoul my personal identification figure for this movie is the fact that he’s a hopeless romantic; and it’s his falling for the wrong woman that ultimately brings him down.

Obviously, the crux of the movie is the triangle between Mary, Paul and Raoul; and the interactions of the characters as they bounce off each other. Bartel, Woronov and Beltran are all fully up to the task. However, there is one more important character in this movie, and she is my favorite part of the film. That would be Doris the Dominatrix, who is played wonderfully by Susan Saiger.

Ironically, Doris is probably the most normal and ethical person we see. Our first glimpse of her is at a swingers’ party Paul gets dragged to, tormenting him with a whip. Later on, when Paul and Mary conceive of their plan, they go to her for help getting set up. At the party she is the iconic imperious tormenter we would expect from a dominatrix; but when she next appears it’s as a rather perky housewife and mother. Later on, Paul employs her in his rivalry with Raoul.

Saiger is wonderful in her playing up the contrast between the dominatrix and housewife roles; and I think that both the character and her take on it are a true delight to watch. Saiger wasn’t involved in too many other movies; which is a shame because I would love to see more of her.

The movie itself, as a whole, is truly a warped treat. It presents us with a world that is so warped and insane; only the truly warped and insane can live in it. It is filled with all sorts of bizarre humor; from the various fantasies the Blands put together for their clients (a Nazi interrogation, a hippy; Mary dressed as Minnie Mouse while her client, dressed as a pirate, chases her around the apartment) to the revelation of what Raoul does with the cadavers the Blands give him, to the inevitable end to the love triangle. And yet, for all its warped screwed-upness; Eating Raoul is played out entirely in a very straight, deadpan fashion. For those with a certain mindset and sense of humor, Eating Raoul is definitely a must see.

As a final note, some years after Eating Raoul’s release, Bartel and Woronov actually had a sequel ready to go. Unfortunately, Bartel had his untimely heart attack before they could film. Still, this is not the last we get to see of this wonderfully demented couple. In 1986 the movie Chopping Mall came out.

Chopping Mall is an okay, but not inspired, movie about a new breed of security robot running amuck and slaughtering a group of teens trapped in the mall after hours. The best part of the movie is the first ten minutes, at the demonstration for the new security models. Sitting in the crowd is none other than Paul and Mary Bland! From their conversation their restaurant is successful; Paul considers buying a robot himself to “get rid of people we don’t like.” Also, there’s something that’s indefinable, but a bit more repulsive, about the Blands. Their short appearance and dialogue is a real treat, and, unfortunately, much better than the rest of the movie. I don’t know who thought of slipping the Blands into Chopping Mall; but I, for one, am sure glad they did.

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