The Devouring Ego in Eating Raoul
by Ethan Leonard
In a portrait of the apex of the Californian counterculture in the sixties, the essayist Joan Didion turns repeatedly to Max, a Hippie she encountered during her time in San Francisco. In one particular moment of reminiscence, Didion recalls how “Max is telling me how he lives free of all the old middle-class Freudian hang-ups… [He] sees his life as a triumph over ‘don’ts.’ The don’ts he had done before he was 21 were peyote, alcohol, mescaline, and Methedrine. He was on a Meth trip for three years in New York and Tangier before he found acid” (Didion). Although the world of Paul Bartel’s film Eating Raoul is radically removed from Didion’s both chronologically and geographically, it is nonetheless the voice of Max and his generation, a clarion call to corrosive liberation through cannibalistic indulgence and transgression, which lingers over the film as an almost silent narrator.
The plot of Eating Raoul revolves around Paul and Mary Bland, played respectively by Bartel himself and Warhol acolyte Mary Woronov, a couple so conventional as to almost seem Puritan, and their efforts to navigate their own dire financial straits to open a restaurant. Opportunity arrives for the Blands in the form of a refugee from one of the regular swingers parties in the Blands’ apartment building, whose behavior results in an altercation that ends in his inadvertent murder at the hands of Paul, who discovers that his actions have produced a remarkable amount of revenue from the victim’s wallet. This incident gives birth to a lucrative business of Mary masquerading as a dominatrix in order to lure men to their home, only for Paul to kill them with a frying pan and steal their wallets. It’s a model which operates with an almost mechanical proficiency until the eponymous Raoul Mendoza, a part time locksmith and full time thief, discovers their secret while attempting to rob the Bland’s apartment. In exchange for not reporting on each other, the Bland’s strike a bargain with Raoul: he can keep the possessions of the victims to pawn off, while they keep the money. Things go awry rather quickly, however, upon Paul’s discovery that not only is Raoul having an affair with his wife, but also selling the victim’s corpses to a dog food factory for additional profit. Tensions rise until a confrontation between Raoul and the Blands ends with Raoul being killed. The Blands then serve him in a cannibalistic feast to their real estate agent while they finalize the deal for their new restaurant. The film then fades into its final shot of the couple standing in front of “Paul and Mary’s Country Kitchen.”
Eating Raoul is set in Los Angeles in 1982, a place where, according to the film’s opening narration, “sex hunger is reflected everywhere in daily life… And the barrier between food and sex has totally dissolved” (00:01:15). The world of the film and its inhabitants are very much the progeny of the sixties’ revolutionary ethos, yet mutated, or perhaps complemented by, the valorized capitalism of the Reagan Era. Sexual and financial predation have been fully wedded. At one point a banker, attempting to extort sex from Mary in exchange for a loan, brags about how liberated he is. The ostensibly revolutionary debauchery of the counterculture has diffused throughout all of society, seeping into its highest echelons, creating an environment in which Haight Ashbury and Wall Street have collapsed into each other.
The dissolution of the liberating ethos of the sixties in Eating Raoul crystallizes the role cannibalism plays in the film, this being as a devouring cultural force. In addition to its commentary on the elision of the boundary between sex and food, the opening narration also discusses how “it is a known fact that prolonged exposure to just such a psychopathic environment will eventually warp even the most decent and normal among us” (00:02:10). One can therefore watch the movie as a saga of the Blands themselves being devoured by the hedonism and depravity of their world, watching as their tastes and values are fed into the maelstrom of self fulfillment and ambition. At the same time, the inverse can be claimed, that Paul and Mary are both physical and cultural cannibals in how they take the climate of sexual liberation and use it to trap their prey. They feast on the bloated corpse of the sixties and, to this extent, their refusal to partake in its countercultural decadence acts as a type of sly subversion against the world and power structures that such beliefs have been inextricably woven into. By the end of the film, however, this becomes a sort of autocannibalism. The Blands, as the movie promised, have been warped by the debauched environment they live in. When Raoul is finally eaten in the movie’s closing feast, it is a tripartite act of cannibalism, suicide, and rebirth.
Intersecting worlds of gratification pulse through the film, the promises of financial success, sexual ecstasy, and power, position the characters against each other, cause them to retreat into themselves and view others as instruments of achieving their own desires. Three years after Didion had chronicled the origins of this society in San Francisco, she attempted to create a more complete portrait of this type of indulgence and irreality in American life, labeling the phenomena as “Dreampolitik” (Didion 96). Nine years later, the cultural critic Christopher Lasch would elaborate upon this notion in his seminal work The Culture of Narcissism, writing that “sexual relations thus become manipulative and predatory. Satisfaction depends on taking what you want instead of waiting for what is rightfully yours to receive. All this enters everyday speech in language that connects sex with aggression…” (Lasch 84).
Through this lens, food in Eating Raoul becomes a symbol for how other people are viewed by the characters. When Paul visits a swingers party in his apartment at the beginning of the film, the host describes it as a “free candy store [where] you can eat anything you want” (11:56). The Blands themselves undergo a similar shift in perception, with Mary referring to a group of swingers metonymically as “two Guccis coming on to a Pierre Cardin” (1:11:32). There is an implication throughout the film that this sort of metaphorical cannibalism can only sustain one’s desires for so long, eventually the mentality that humans are instruments for consumption will transform into one which sees humans as something to be physically consumed. The movie is, in many ways, a chronicle of the Blands’ submission to this ethos, their coming to see, as Didion put it, “life as a triumph over ‘don’ts,’” moving from robbery, to murder, to serial killing, and eventually cannibalism. Transgression is defined in the film as something that lacks any sort of telos, which may be taken as far in the direction of depravity as the ego may allow, and it is above all the ego which dominates the universe of the film.
Didion, Joan. “Notes Towards Dreampolitik.” The White Album, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1979, pp. 96–105.
Didion, Joan. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Saturday Evening Post, 1967, https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/06/didion/.
Eating Raoul. Dir. Paul Bartel, perf. Paul Bartel, Mary Woronow, and Robert Beltran. Janus Films, 1982.
Lasch, Chistopher. The Culture Of Narcissism: American Life In An Age Of Diminishing Expectations. Norton, 1979.