Maneaters March 25, 2021
On Eating Raoul and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills
aul and Mary Bland, the married couple at the center of Paul Bartel’s conceptually audacious black comedy Eating Raoul
(1982), want more than anything to open
a restaurant. They know little about their business in the making except that it will be named Paul and Mary’s Country Kitchen, serve ritzy wines, and have its signature dish in “the Bland Enchilada.” Lately, though, this shared dream, long brightening their respectively miserable routines, feels dimmer than it ever has. (Paul cashiers at a minute mart where the manager is disposed to calmly shoot robbers on sight; Mary nurses at a hospital where she is routinely groped by drooling patients.) They’re in debt; their apartment manager is instating a $175 rent increase soon; and when Mary tries to secure a business loan, her financial officer tries coming on to her just after saying no to her $20,000 request. “If we don’t do something, there’s not going to be a restaurant,” Mary
says to Paul in a moment of crisis.
As if being nudged by the cosmos, the Blands (played with appealing deadpan posture by frequent collaborators Bartel and Mary Woronov) happen upon a method that might confirm the happiness they’ve been seeking. (It’s neither foolproof nor simple, but they’ll take inspiration whenever they can find it.) After a scary run-in with an aggressive swinger accidentally leaves him dead, Paul and Mary notice while rummaging through his wallet that this creep — a junior officer with the San Fernando Bank in life — was carrying $600 with him. Contemptuous of both the rich and the perverted, the Blands wonder: Are all rich perverts carrying around this much money as loose change? (This apparently asexual couple sleeps in twin beds in matching yellow pajamas, hugging stuffed animals; we never see them showing each other romantic affection.)
A scheme emerges. Paul and Mary resolve to put an ad in the Hollywood Press advertising at a high price Mary as a dominatrix. She’ll take on the guise of the inimitable Cruel Carla, a hellion in leather guaranteed to efficiently shame you if you ask her to with an appropriate wink. Just before things can get too heavy back at their apartment (the Blands never head out to meet their client), Paul will barge in. Wielding his favored cast-iron frying pan, he’ll bonk an unfortunate john on the head so hard they instantly croak. After the Blands ask for her guidance, a successful dominatrix (Susan Saiger) advises the couple to do whatever a client asks for but stop the moment it draws blood. Technically, their enterprise abides.
The initial rich pervert’s descendants go through the Bland machine without any hitches. (Bartel acutely minimizes sympathy for the victims to dampen a viewer’s potential moral concerns: one client is a literal Nazi; all seem as though they would have raped Mary if Paul did not intervene.) But the operation is soon foiled by another creative transgressor. He’s a handsome young man named Raoul (Robert Beltran) who, professionally convincing in a smart red jumpsuit, offers door-to-door locksmith services.
This is a ruse. Raoul is actually casing homes and sneakily giving himself access; later in the evening, he'll empty his latest client’s living space of its valuables and move along. Raoul first meets the Blands under the auspices of installing a security system. (Paul’s expensive wine collection needs protection.) When he breaks in the same night, Raoul sees a garbage-bagged body in the kitchen right when his unwitting hosts discover someone is in the house. "I should have known it was too cheap to be true," Paul scoffs when he catches the imposter. All parties scared of getting caught, Raoul and the Blands strike a deal: they’ll mutually refrain from calling the police if Raoul joins in on the scheme. He’ll deal with victim remains no questions asked and get about half the profits. (We’ll learn later that there is more to his dealings than he’s letting on; there is a reason why he’s so agreeably collaborative.) Raoul’s involvement isn’t a problem at first; then Mary doesn’t resist it when he tests out his usual seduction techniques on her. Questions of how Raoul might derail the scheme make the movie’s main conflict. Snooping law enforcement surprisingly never announces itself.
One might expect Eating Raoul's comedy style to be about as exaggerated as its premise's darkness to do some offsetting work. The first act does have a bit of a sitcom-like lift. The score suggests a wholesome 1960s romantic comedy; Bartel sporadically uses bing boom blip-style sound effects to lend the action a cartoonishness. Bartel’s and Woronov’s sardonic acting, juxtaposed with the playfully anachronistic sound and set design, gives an early impression that the movie will mostly be a satire of the classic TV comedy format. Along with the perversion of a conventionally achieved American dream, the presence of murder will further distinguish it.
Eating Raoul effectively keeps up this style for the first act or so, then loses some tightness once the stakes start to get higher — around the time a subplot involving Raoul trying to kill Paul comes to the fore. (While intermittently funny, the succession of frantic sight gags has a filler-like tiredness.) And although Bartel’s and Woronov’s performances are engaging, their serial comic dryness can hamper the more slapstick-driven scenes. They’re better at imbuing dialogue with prickly drollness than they are testing a physical gag’s limits. (Thankfully there is much more of the former than the latter in Eating Raoul.)
But what is this movie if not fundamentally a story about perseverance? Even at its least successful, Eating Raoul
stays clever; we look forward to finding out where the Blands’ bloody improvisations will take them. Somewhere ideal, it turns out: this bold couple will survive the murder and mayhem that crops up in the name of dream-making. “This is the story of Hollywood today,” a voiceover at the beginning of the movie tells us. “Not a pretty story, but presented exactly how it happened.” In Hollywood in 1982 — like any time and any place in America — playing fair rarely gets you what you want. There’s going to be a restaurant after all because Paul and Mary did something.
Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and Robert Beltran in 1982's Eating Raoul.
fter one of the characters in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989) wakes up from a particularly eventful dream, he says to himself that with his imagination, he should write for Dynasty (1981-
'89). (We'll say for the sake of saving time that his brain cooks up a surrealistically hellish dinner party.) Once we've spent a little time observing the lives of the people in the milieu this man works within, we notice his dream isn't that exaggerated. (This man, played by Robert Beltran, is named Juan, and he is the maidservant of a has-been soap-opera actress named Clare, who is played by Jacqueline Bisset.)
This hyperactive movie, like Eating Raoul, was directed by and stars Bartel alongside Woronov and Beltran. It covers a few days in the lives of Clare and her family, friends, and various dependents. (Woronov plays Clare’s neighbor Lisabeth, who’s staying at her pal’s house while her own is fumigated.) The universe seems to have picked this one week for all these people to spend an inordinate amount of time at Clare’s Beverly Hills mansion and cause as many problems as possible. Just like Dynasty, the narrative is about as straightforward as a hedge maze fitted with several hidden trapdoors — which is to say that it is not very. Character motivations rarely complement each other. Dramatic revelations are always evinced at the worst possible moments. Damaging misunderstandings and untruths flourish like ivy. Everyone who has a significant other inevitably cheats on their partner and doesn’t try that hard to cover it up. (One late montage in the movie watches as various characters coincidentally on the same night go to bed with someone to whom they are not committed.) There is even a ghost story involving Clare’s late husband (Paul Mazursky).
Everyone in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills has fastened to them a secret that is either theatrically explosive or just plain dirty and little. No matter what, it will be impossible to keep them stored safely. As a finishing complicating narrative touch, Juan and Lisabeth’s chauffeur, a jaundiced former hustler named Frank (Ray Sharkey), strike a Dangerous Liaisons (1782)-style deal — a competition to see who can successfully seduce his boss first. No one is permitted in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills to be boring, feel all that real. Not even Clare’s fluffy little white dog Bojangles, who meets an I hate to say humorously extravagant premature end (RIP) and then gets thrown an elaborate open-casket funeral one sunny afternoon. “To these rich bitches, life is just one big situation comedy,” Frank muses.
If Eating Raoul was a mostly inspired satire of classic sitcoms, then Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills is a mostly inspired satire of the soap-opera format. It’s reliably amusing, and the dialogue tends to skew enjoyably absurd. (“They may know shit about black-tie galas, Jack Russell Terriers, or semen facials — but they do know about us,” Clare says of the hired help’s perception of their decadent, out-of-touch bosses.) But like Eating Raoul, the delivery can be bumpy. Toward its end, the movie seems to be striving for genuine pathos, but by then sincerity has been so sparse that it doesn’t tug us emotionally — it doesn't feel earned. And it’s generally unclear if we are supposed to find the movie uproariously funny at its most preposterous (like we would an old slapstick comedy) or if Bartel is OK with us mostly just smiling, occasionally chuckling, at the movie’s cleverness and sometimes deliriously unflattering representations of the exploitative wealthy. Either way, I was ultimately as glad to temporarily experience Clare’s big situation comedy of a life as I was eager to get out from under it.
Eating Raoul: B+
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills: B