The impudence and raciness of Paul Bartel's "Eating Raoul" are largely confined to its title. The movie proves a curiously harmless pet of a black comedy: It barks and snaps at you in fitfully funny ways, but it's essentially tame, pipsqueaky and more than a trifle antiquated.
"Eating Raoul" might have seemed fresher when swingers were a novelty. But Bartel also seems to lack the smoldering, unpredictable libidinous unconscious that gives a distinctive and sometimes revelatory charge to similar work of other directors, for example, Federico Fellini's "City of Women"; Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!" and parts of "Carrie"; Dusan Makavejev's "Montenegro"; Paul Mazursky's "Blume in Love"; writer John Sayles and director Joe Dante's "The Howling"; Bertrand Blier's great trio of "Going Places," "Femmes Fatales" and "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs"; and even the relatively mild-mannered Claude Berri's "Le Sex Shop."
The press kit for "Eating Raoul" presents the movie as a blend of "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and "Arsenic and Old Lace." The blend Bartel achieves is far more aromatic of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" -- especially the tongue-in-cheek vignettes about successful homicide like "Lamb to the Slaughter" -- crossed with the later, semi-slick John Waters.
Bartel directs in a crisply gauche, artless manner that suggests the conventions of TV situation comedy with a slight hint of conscious, mocking derangement. The principal characters, Bartel himself and Mary Woronov as a devoted, celibate married couple named Paul and Mary Bland, are slight, satiric exaggerations of a typical contented sexless TV union. Their apartment is furnished with anachronistic chic: It's Fabulous Fifties, the swellest pieces being a set of twin beds, a streamlined TV receiver and a kidney-shaped mirror over the bedroom dresser.
However, these simultaneously corrupt and hard-up times (the Blands' furniture is really on loan from Mary's mother "until she dies") have obliged pudgy, prissy Paul, an epicure employed beneath himself at a liquor store, and his statuesque missus, a nurse, to reside in an apartment house which subjects them to constant harassment from swinging tenants and their presumptuous party guests. One evening Paul escapes the clutches of the rowdies next door to find Mary being assaulted in the kitchen. He impulsively grabs a cast-iron frying pan and conks the molester into the hereafter. Thumbing through the victim's wallet, Paul and Mary discover a tidy sum of cash and an I.D. that identifies him as an officer of a local bank which has recently inconvenienced them. "Do you suppose he's the one who canceled our credit card?" asks Mary. "He owes us," Paul decides, tucking away the cash.
Having stumbled upon murder for profit and self-righteous gratification, too, the Blands follow up systematically. Upon the advice of a friendly young housewife (Susan Saiger) who doubles as Donna the Dominatrix at their neighbors' orgies, Paul and Mary lure unsuspecting swingers into their clutches by advertising naughty sport in a Hollywood porn weekly. More often than not the dead pigeons turn out to be flush. Typical marital exchange: "Do you know we've already made almost a thousand dollars tax-free?" "Just by killing people?"
A shadow falls over their flourishing enterprise when an opportunistic young burglar, Raoul (Robert Beltran), nominally employed by a laundry service, catches on and cuts himself in on the conspiracy by volunteering to dispose of the corpses and their automobiles. He also lures the reluctant but obviously dynamite Mary into a clandestine affair, which inspires the single wittiest line in the Bartel-Richard Blackburn script -- Mary's assertion "I'm not about to risk my marriage for some low animal attachment."
Woronov and Beltran begin striking funny carnal sparks that really ought to be fanned. Bartel, evidently wedded to the conception of the Blands as staunchly conventional hypocrites whom no force can drive asunder, not even the sexy, ethnic rascal who finally turns Mary on, prefers to douse the flame. Perhaps the least convincing series of events in the script is the campaign of sabotage contrived by Paul in order to subvert Raoul and bring Mary back to her exquisitely repressed senses. Unfortunately, the preconception seems to be robbing the story of inspired erotic complications once Raoul enters the picture.
Woronov, an erstwhile Andy Warhol "discovery" whose movie appearances date back at least as far as "The Chelsea Girls," remains the most fascinating element in the picture. Her pronounced raw-boned angularity seems vaguely androgynous, an aspect that might be exploited for funnier possibilities than Bartel was prepared to accommodate.