Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger warns you that eating Raoul will cause you to shrink two feet while adding a hundred pounds.
Our review of Eating Raoul (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published October 10th, 2012, is also available.
A tasty comedy of bad manners.
Eating Raoul is a scathing black comedy that obliterates the boundary between morality and social grace. It is a classic cult classic. Stilted acting and cheap-feeling sets fail to mar an incisive script, one that can shock even those who have been exposed to the liposuction clinic raid in Fight Club. Eating Raoul skirts the campy side of cult in favor of ironic detachment, which gives it an intellectual bent. Yet the humor is at an almost primitive level. Eating Raoul is a feral savage dressed in a red velvet suit and bowtie.
Unfortunately, this DVD release does everything possible to destroy the Eating Raoul experience. If you are a fan of this delightful black comedy, prepare yourself for bitter disappointment.
Facts of the Case
Paul Bartel (Rock 'n' Roll High School) wrote, directed, and starred in Eating Raoul along with Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000). Paul and Mary Bland are straitlaced spouses who live in seedy Los Angeles. Amid the sexual depravity and predatory malice that distinguishes the rest of the population, Paul and Mary maintain naïve simplicity. The Blands are trying to raise enough money to buy a farmhouse where they can begin their dream restaurant. Partying swingers try to rape Mary while a scam artist helps himself to Paul's choicest wine bottles. The Blands come to learn that murder is the most profitable recourse. When petty thief Raoul (Robert Beltran, Star Trek: Voyager) finds out about their scheme, will it all come crashing down?
Certain tenets of DVD production are so basic that their violation is an outrage. Unfortunately, it is necessary to spell out what we expect as savvy DVD consumers. DVD Verdict has done so in the Verdict Manifesto; below are two pertinent excerpts.
Columbia TriStar has seen fit to violate both the original audio and video, producing a most distasteful version of Eating Raoul. The film was shot in a full frame aspect ratio, 1.33:1. Yet this DVD is presented in 1.85:1 to fit widescreen TVs. Consider this the opposite of anamorphic, and akin to cropping. People look short and bloated, like squat frogs. The film is acerbic enough—there is no need to punctuate it with a surrealistic stretching of the characters.
For those of us who have spent the last several years touting Original Aspect Ratio, this decision represents a particularly bitter irony. Many widescreen movies are cropped or panned and scanned to fit the movie into a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is done to appease owners of 1.33:1 television sets who dislike the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Tragic, then, that a movie which is not in need of cropping to fit a 1.33:1 (normal) television set has been pulled out of shape to fit a 1.85:1 (widescreen) television set. If the disc weren't right here in front of me, I would assume this was the punch line to a videophile joke.
While we are on the subject of unfortunate video decisions, the decision to leave the print unrestored is disappointing as well. Nicks, scratches, dust, grain, and huge creature-like blots persistently mar the image. A couple of scenes had what looked like a hand puppet dancing on the bottom. The colors are decidedly non-punchy, nowhere near stable. Black levels fluctuate and colors seep into each other.
The audio situation is not much better. (Where I might have roused some sympathy with the above arguments, this one may lose a few people, but here goes.) Eating Raoul was filmed in mono, like many movies of its era and budget. This DVD is in "stereo." By "stereo," I mean that the majority of the film has the same information coming from both speakers, except at certain times where the audio information has been split into two speakers. This phenomenon is hard to explain; half of the voice comes from the left while the other half comes from the right. I'm not talking about discrete spatial effects, I'm talking about a muddy sort of separation effect. We all like the excitement of surround sound, and many home theater enthusiasts don't mind a soundtrack that has been remixed into multi-channel sound. As a purist, I don't like the practice, but I acknowledge the enthusiasm others have for accentuated soundtracks. This is something else; a poor wrenching of mono sound into a stereo mix.
There are no extras provided except a handful of trailers for movies that share nothing in common with Eating Raoul. To be fair, Paul Bartel is dead and we can't really ask him to provide a commentary track. Surely someone out there remembers Paul and can provide some brief comment on this expressive piece?
There is good news for those with HTPCs (home theater computers) or digital scalers. It is possible to force the Eating Raoul DVD into full frame, which will squeeze it back into the proper aspect ratio. The processor has to calculate the redistribution of pixels, which looks good but not as good as having the thing presented properly in the first place. If you also have a receiver that is capable of downmixing into mono, you can enjoy a close approximation of the original version. In my primary viewing session, I forced a fullscreen ratio, but suffered through the stereo mix.
In summary, the VHS version of Eating Raoul is superior to this DVD in almost every way. At this stage in the DVD game such a release is staggering, and not in a good way.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This DVD treatment is a shame, because Eating Raoul is one of the most withering and accessible black comedies I've yet seen. Black comedy is a tricky beast that must be contained to prevent it from attacking the audience. Man Bites Dog, a notorious black comedy about a sadistic killer and the documentary crew who follows him, errs through lack of restraint. Murders, rapes, and other distasteful elements are thrown at the audience like punches. Prizzi's Honor errs through restraint. The comedy is subdued through ponderous Mafia trappings, extended pans, and a plodding tone. (To be fair, my opinion of Prizzi's Honor has drawn some disagreement.) Eating Raoul's closest cousin, in terms of tone and subject, is François Ozon's Sitcom, which deals with a lily-white family confronted with strange sexual antics and death. None of these black comedies approaches the effortless tone and easy approachability that Bartel has created with Eating Raoul.
If you don't watch out, you will find yourself swept up in the normalcy of two middle class squares running an S&M dungeon and murdering people right and left. The Blands' outrage and sense of justice is so understandable that we can be forgiven for not processing the fundamental horror behind their solution. The best example (which is a spoiler) comes at the end of the film, when James is expected for dinner. The Blands have to choose between the ignominy of not having dinner ready on time and using whatever ingredients they have on hand to prepare dinner. It is only when they choose to literally eat Raoul that we realize how thoroughly skewed is the Blands' sense of manners. Cannibalism is preferable to not having dinner ready for the guest.
Of course, this disconnect between the prim and proper Blands and their abhorrent actions is the power behind the film's humor. Each situation is mined for a twisted morsel, some of which are slapstick and some of which are subtle. The shtick of hauling corpses around is primarily responsible for the physical humor, while the subtle interplay between manners and depravity makes for subtlety. Strangely enough, the film does not feel subtle at all. Sleazy lounge lizards harass Mary at every turn, groping and leering with crass abandon. Nobody acts this way, not even the slimiest scuzzball. Swinger parties have naked people running around like dogs, with a dominatrix yelling, "Mush!" With such ribald trappings, the piercing message behind Eating Raoul creeps up on you.
This film is the kind of film that rewards repeated viewings. Once you absorb the delightfully twisted story, further viewings will reveal the carefully nuanced comedic background. Sound effects, details of decor, environmental cues, and throwaway lines all add hilarious tertiary jibes into the mix. Cult films often have a high rewatchability factor, and this one is no exception.
Another cult standby is stilted acting. Mary and Paul are so stiff in their line delivery that you wonder if blood is still running through their veins. The only actor who bucks this trend is Robert Beltran, who plays the hot-blooded Chicano Raoul. Even his introduction is decidedly overplayed. The acting is just not engaging. Yet somehow, the characters seem complex and fleshed out. It is inexplicable, but it works.
Eating Raoul is a fine example of the black comedy genre. The humor is applied in layers that build slowly to an outrageous conclusion. I highly recommend it to those ready for a quirky, shocking, yet still polite comedy. Sadly, I cannot recommend this DVD to anyone. Those with the technical wherewithal to wrest the film back into its intended form may be less frustrated, but the true fan of this film or those who support OAR should avoid it.
The verdict is clear: Raoul is free to go while Columbia TriStar is to be fed to the Dogfood King.
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