With filmmakers so cynical and despairing today about America, it's refreshing to see a film with so much faith in the American dream. This is a classic tale of rags to riches, of a respectable married couple, down on their financial luck, who, with initiative and a novel idea, manage to fulfil their dream, a hotel in the country. If, to get there, they must pose as bondage merchants, murder their clients, rob their wallets, give the bodies to a petty thief who sells them to dog-food companies as choice meat, than such is the nature of success.
RAOUL declares itself as a true story from the Sodom and Gomorrhah of Hollywood, where fantastic wealth co-exists with degrading poverty. The film is a moral tale, about steering the middle-course, about what it takes to be normal and decent. It plays like straight John Waters, but just as hysterical, even if, eventually, it cannot sustain itself.
The featured couple are called, appropriately, the Blands, and it is significant that their serial-killing weopon is a lethal frying-pan. Paul, played by the director, is the epitome of his name: balding, pedanctic, so obsessed with fine wines that he gets fired from his low-rent off-licence for over-ambition. His wife, Mary, is less bland, which is why she is more easily tempted by the dark side. While Paul remains sweetly virginal, she, a hospital nutritionist, works in an evnironment where she is continually harrassed by lecherous lotharios, and is knowledgeable enough to know that the most humiliating revenge is to have them receive their enema from a burly dandy.
Bartel is a Roger Corman alumnus, and this can be seen in the fluid, economical filming, the functional set-ups that are actually quite complex. The film's very classical structure is at odds with (piecemeal) filming that has characters seem, ineptly, to wander up to the camera, although this has the unsettling effect of making the creepy nonsense seem curiously real.
There is also a hint of suppressed Gothic in the telling - Mary's hysterical normality is so camp she could be Vampira - while the Blands' blandness is under attack from all sides. It's bad enough to have 'swingers' (a charmingly 50s word for perverts that chimes with the Blands' adorably tasteless 50s furniture left them by Mary's mother until she dies) crowding the tenement for sleazy, Warholian, sado-masochistic parties, but to have one of them storm into your apartment, throw up all over your carpet, nearly die in your lavatory, bring your husband to the party to be humiliated/initiated by Doris the Dominatrix, and then come back to violate your wife, is an imposition.
The film makes satirical points enough - the rich and professional classes are all vile, violent sleazes, while the S&M 'sickos' are sweet, loving mothers who live in pleasant suburban avenues so indifferent to capitalist Darwinism that they help out the competition. The racism needed to keep normality normal is shown in the horrifyingly hilarious shooting of a store-robber, or in the final fate of self-confessed 'Chicano' Raoul, which suggest Peter Greenaway might be a fan of the film. The cannibalism theme has a long satirical history in jibes on the bourgeoisie, and it's no surprise to learn that Bartel is a devotee of Bunuel.
But the film's real satire is to show how normality must survive in a society, Hollywood, that has obliterated any recognised sense of reality.