Sunday, May 02, 2004

Eating Raoul (1982)

This low budget dark comedy stands up to the test of time surprisingly well! It was like mining the depths of my consciousness, way back to the days of my late adolescence, that one summer when we had HBO for free and I watched this movie about every third hour. I still knew some of the lines by heart.

The plot goes like this: a square, old-fashioned couple wants to open a restaurant. Surrounded by a world of people of poor taste--and worse, of loose morals--they constantly strive to maintain a certain purity while they save their money for a down-payment on their dream place. The problem is, the pesky swingers who are their neighbors keep intruding, with partygoers mistaking theirs for the swinger house. The result is that when a swinger comes in and nearly rapes Mary, Paul kills him accidentally by hitting him over the head with a frying pan. They discover $600 in his pocket and decide on a brilliant scheme that will help the world in two ways: By advertising dominatrix services in a local sex rag and then killing the respondents for their money, they will both earn enough money for their down-payment and rid the world of some vile people. Everyone wins! Then they are discovered by local crook, Raoul, who insists on a cut in the business.

To see the movie again as a scholar was a lot of fun because I noticed so many things that made it rise above its poor production values and last beyond its popular-culture-datedness. For one, it's very emphatically set in L.A. with an opening montage of shots of working class, seedy L.A. The voiceover humorously explains the gist of the film, that materialism has taken over, has become, in part, an obsession with having sex and that sex as a material possession of a sort has started to be equated with everything else, including food. Funny hot dog stand signs are shown to illustrate the point. This prepares us for the Blands, Paul and Mary, who are so proper they take turns undressing in the walk-in closet (door closed) while they get
into their matching pajamas and get into their chaste twin beds. It also is a great setup to the wonderful juxtaposition between their utter horror at the sexual deviance of the people around them and their disregard for their own violence and larceny.

In a juicy side-plot, Mary engages in an affair with sexy Raoul--with some pretty steamy scenes where they smoke Thai stick and get pretty naked. I should say as an aside here that one particularly graphic scene made me think about how comfortable I would be showing the movie to college students. But, hell, they're adults, right? And it's such a great example of dark comedy because I think a lot of what dark comedy is about is that tension between the old, rigid rules of behavior and the new, modern permissiveness. That is where so many laughs from this film (and many others like it) come from. Anyway, part of the tension of the film has us in the dark about whether Mary will betray Paul and stick with Raoul or break up with Raoul and stay with Paul. Raoul promises her that a restaurant kitchen is no place for a beautiful woman--he says he can keep her in style by expanding the "business." On the other hand, Paul offers stability and the fulfillment of their dream of owning a restaurant. Mary doesn't let herself be tempted by the lustful seedy life of the sexually gratified.

There's so much to this film. From the standpoint of semiotic analysis, one can find many clues about the characters. In fact, it would be fun to talk with students about semiotic analysis regarding this film because it's so heavy handed and funny--like the turgid cylindrical objects that seem to accompany Raoul in every shot. There's also the element of repetition--we might use the real estate agent's visits, for example, as a barometer for the way the characters change in this film. Each time he comes, Paul and Mary are in a panic to impress him with dinner. To discuss the way the dynamics of power change within that relationship would be productive. Certainly, a Marxist approach might be interesting too: class seems to be an issue here. The filmmaker spends a lot of time and precious film establishing shots of the working class L.A. How does that compare with the upper middle class existence of the swingers--and of Paul and Mary who seem to straddle the classes? How would a feminist read this film? It might be interesting to look at the women characters in this film, Mary and the dominatrix, and analyze them. Who is truly liberated and who is subjugated? might even be an easy place to start and to talk about critical approaches, then.

Well, I'm starting to think that the exploration part of writing this course needs to become somewhat more structured. I need to decide just how many films I want to bring into the course and start writing.