Personally, I find both Eating Raoul and the Paul Bartel cult to be overrated. Bartel is like a lesser John Waters. Both Bartel and Waters love delving into bad taste, sexual perversity and mount satiric attacks on middle-class mores, although Bartel certainly shies away from any of the full-on assaults on good taste that early John Waters films like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977) do. If you want a John Waters film to compare Eating Raoul to, think more of the farcical black humour of Serial Mom (1994). The difference between Paul Bartel and John Waters might be that while Waters gleefully enjoys the company of the perverts and is in there like a kid who has just discovered he can be naughty and get away with it, Bartel stands back in affected mock disdain.
I actually found myself bored with Eating Raoul both when I initially saw it and upon subsequent re-reviewing. Paul Bartel is a director who lacks subtlety. Maybe it is just that I have been hanging out in the company of fetishists for too long but Bartels portrait of the swingers and various kinksters throughout the film lacked a satiric wit. (That said, there are many other reviewers who find Eating Raoul outrageously funny). There is a tendency one also shared by John Waters more recent films to hit people over the head until every single person in the audience gets the gag. Take away the risque sexual element, which ended up being Eating Raouls sole cause celebre, and all that is left is often a series of shrill one-dimensional cartoon cut-out figures flouncing around hysterically.
The similarities between Paul Bartel and John Waters do not end there. Both Waters and Bartel are/were gay men. One certainly does not wish to criticise a film based on someones sexual preferences. That said, you cannot help but see Eating Raoul as a film made by a rather prissy gay man it reads exactly like it were made by someone who is obsessed with the snobbery of good taste and deplores vulgarity with a catty sarcasm. Most of all, Bartel maintains a mock disdain for 80s swinger culture: This world is overflowing with sexual freaks Im glad weve found each other, Horrible sex-crazed maniacs that nobody in the world would miss, he and Mary Woronov are constantly telling one another.
The more one reads about Paul Bartel, the more Eating Raoul feels like it is an unconscious outthrust of Bartels ego (and certainly of the characters he often played on screen). On one level, it is a film about sticking a knife into middle-class morality and satirising the 70s swinging fad but beneath that it also reads like Bartel maintaining a sarcastic disdain for the world around him and where it seems all that matters is conducting oneself with the snobbish affectations of good class. Bartel also seems to deplore the messy business of sex the swingers and kinksters are seen as disposable because they are vulgar, while he and Woronov sleep in two different beds (it is hard to tell if this is part of the satire or a comment on platonic marriages). Even here, Bartel has a sad cynicism. The film gets bent out of shape at times to include an element where wife Mary Woronov falls prey to the temptations of earthy (hetero)-sexual desire. It feels in all this that it is Bartel passing a sad kind of judgement on her too (his platonic wife) for failing to meet his standards in the end, the only real character who seems uncorrupted in Bartels farce is the one played by Bartel himself. As a film, Eating Raoul treads a fine line between satire and between what starts to blur into its creators own snobbery it feels like one man being bitchy and sarcastic simply because the world fails to meet his standards.
The only player to emerge from Bartels cartoonish farce is his frequent collaborator Mary Woronov. Indeed, Woronov became a cult queen during the 1980s, a large part of which was due to her performance in Eating Raoul. Alas, Woronov is almost too strong a presence for Bartels satire of sexuality. The role of Mary should have been prim and straight-laced, only Woronov plays with her usual arch sultriness whether she is playing the straight-laced part or whether she is being tempted and as a result ends up stealing a large part of the film. Quite well placed up against her is Robert Beltran later to play Commander Chakotay, the second-in-command about tvs Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) who gives an amusing performance of macho Latin cocksureness. Woronov comes to life during the scenes being seduced by Robert Beltran but these scenes have an oddly erotic charge that seems out of place amidst the rest of Bartels mock outrage against sexual vulgarity, as though they have strayed in from another film altogether.
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