Since the Video Vortex rental outfit at Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh opened back up recently (and I started working at the theater), I’ve been sifting a bit through their collection. It has given me the chance to catch up on some films that wouldn’t be terribly budget-friendly to get on streaming or digital rentals, and who doesn’t love the nostalgic joy of flipping through countless VHS and DVD cases? One of the first things I knew I wanted to dig up was Eating Raoul, a cult classic dark comedy from Paul Bartel that got a Criterion release a while back.
Eating Raoul is, on paper, a movie I expected to like. I first heard about it when I watched and wrote about the fantastic Chopping Mall many years ago, which features the lead characters from this film in what could probably be called inflated cameos. It popped back onto my radar more recently for a couple of reasons. First, I have been watching through Star Trek: Voyager, and Eating Raoul was the major debut of main cast member Robert Beltran. Second, I recently watched Fresh, a controversial recent feature that treads on some similar conceptual ground.
Eating Raoul is a dark comedy – a genre I usually appreciate – about eccentric characters who snowball into executing an increasingly absurd string of murders to pay their rent. There is definitely a class-conflict, “eat the rich” theme to the screenplay, which is usually fun to see. At first glance, it sounds like it has some common DNA with one of my favorite old-school b-movies, A Bucket of Blood: Roger Corman’s skewering of art criticism and culture.
All of that said, to my surprise, I did not particularly enjoy Eating Raoul. The tone of the film is exaggerated and cartoonish, which could theoretically work if it were employed with a conscious purpose, but it doesn’t seem to have one. I expected the movie to have something to say: there is certainly plenty that it could say if it wanted to cut any deeper than than the surface level. It invokes themes like classism and misogyny (its strongest moments are inarguably Woronov’s), but the movie doesn’t dedicate the time to making a particularly coherent statement about these themes through the characterizations or plot. Because none of the characters are grounded in reality, it makes social criticism difficult to weave into them: these people are looney tunes, so what could their actions and experiences say about our tangible world? While it isn’t impossible to use highly exaggerated characters for meaningful critique, it takes some finesse.
Going through extant criticism of the film, I agree with some of Roger Ebert’s musings about it, particularly in respect to its tone and pacing:
“Eating Raoul” is one of the more deadpan black comedies I’ve seen: It tries to position itself somewhere between the bizarre and the banal, and most of the time, it succeeds…Problem is, it’s so laid-back it eventually gets monotonous.”
Honestly, there were more than a few moments where I felt like it leaned a little too hard into the banal to the detriment of the bizarre, which had the runtime flowing like cold molasses. I will say that I liked the performances from Woronov and Bartel, but nothing around them really worked for me. The love triangle that develops isn’t terribly compelling, and the action is all pretty predictable and repetitive. The whole work came off as simultaneously mean spirited and without a directionality for its barbs. It is a sea urchin of a movie, indiscriminately pricking anything that comes into range.
More than anything, I think I was disappointed with the execution of an interesting story concept. Particularly today, when the value of human life is so trivialized, selfishness aggrandized, and economic stratification so pronounced, a film about preying on people to pay the rent seems like it could resonate. I was hoping that this would be more of a prescient gem on a reassessment, but I don’t think time has actually done it any favors.