*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Bartel

Written by Bartel and Bruce Wagner

With Jacqueline Bisset, Mary Woronov, Ray Sharkey, Robert Beltran, Ed Begley Jr., Arnetia Walker, Wallace Shawn, and Bartel.

Elegant drollery and wit flow through Paul Bartel’s Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills like German steel purrs down Sunset Boulevard. A haughty insouciance attends it; the film has a permanently cocked eyebrow. If that was all the film had, it would still be the most entertaining American character comedy of the year. Hell, make that the last five years. But Bartel has the classic double vision of a true satirist, and under his waspish humor runs a strong current of idealistic morality, expressed in his characters’ poignant longing to be done with their own foolishness. Bartel’s tale of sexual desire and social restraint typically gets most of its laughs from the embarrassment both his rich and poor buffoons suffer at the exposure of their intimate selves. Discretion, the armed enforcer of taste and the repressor of personality, is the real subject of this class struggle.

At first glance, discretion is not a characteristic one would quickly associate with the director of Private Parts, Death Race 2000, or Cannonball, but the awkwardness of personal expression runs alongside the more sensational motifs in these over-the-top sex-and-violence extravaganzas. While Private Parts may be the last word on voyeurism, it is also the story of a quiet, polite young woman caught up in a maelstrom of self-actualizing fantasists. The car races of both Death Race 2000 and Cannonball are run by contestants who see the stakes as justifications of styles broadened into eccentricities, with the loutish and loquacious always losing to the tastefully tacit.

In Eating Raoul this obsessive desire for tasteful comportment reaches its zenith not just in the heroes’ murders of rich “perverts,” but in Bartel’s decision to leave the murders themselves just out of the camera’s sight. Skipping over the mysteriously miserable Not for Publication and Lust in the Dust to the unjustly overlooked Longshot, we again encounter hapless heroes whose self-images as a bunch of sports are undermined by the rest of the world’s perception of them as a gaggle of badly dressed losers.

No one in Class Struggle has to worry about looking badly dressed. These self-conscious mannequins have completely given themselves over to the self-insuring safety of brand names. Even their hometown–Beverly Hills–is a safety net against the gauche address. The Steuben glass, Perry Ellis clothes, and Louis Vuitton luggage are booby traps against intrusions of personality that might somehow be perceived as inadequate, brutish, or lower-class.

Of course, these aren’t mannequins but people, and people in unusual variety. Bartel has assembled one of the largest casts of characters in recent memory. First comes Clare Lipkin (Jacqueline Bisset), a recently widowed ex-sitcom star bent on a television comeback. Clare plays host to her next-door neighbor, Lisabeth Hepburn-Saravian (Mary Woronov), who is having her house fumigated, mainly to remove the last traces of her philandering husband. Lisabeth brings along her unsuccessful playwright brother, Peter Hepburn (Ed Begley Jr.), and his new bride, To-bel (Arnetia Walker), a black woman he met and married in Las Vegas. Lisabeth’s pubescent son Willie (Barret Oliver) and Clare’s emphatically post-pubescent daughter Zandra (the late Rebecca Schaeffer) round the families out.

It doesn’t end there. Not only does a diet doctor–“thinologist” Mo Van De Kamp (Bartel)–lurk about, but Lisabeth’s unfaithful mate, gynecologist Howard Saravian (Wallace Shawn), shows up, and Clare can’t seem to get rid of the ghost of her foul-mouthed dead husband, Sidney (Paul Mazursky).

If this sounds more like a classless struggle than a class struggle, meet the servants: the Lipkin houseboy Juan (Robert Beltran), and his Hepburn-Saravian counterpart Frank (Ray Sharkey). Along with Clare and Lisabeth, these two form a matrix of fantasy, with each side projecting their desires onto the other. As this desire solidifies into full-fledged seduction, it forms a stage on which each participant competes to seize the intimate spotlight in which he or she can finally, unashamedly, perform a psychological striptease.

The absurdity of trying to assert one’s identity by subjugating another’s is the delightfully cruel premise for most of Bartel’s and screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s humor, and the script concocts deliciously pointed wit with a rising crescendo of sexual rondelets punctuated by one-line barbs. The plot’s engine is a bet between Juan and Frank–Juan needs the money to settle a gambling debt; if he loses, he has to sleep with Frank–over who can seduce the other’s female boss first. However, this power train is supercharged by competing and complementary pursuits: Peter is after Clare, Howard is after To-bel (who turns out to have once been his mistress), Willie is after To-bel, Dr. Mo is after Zandra, Clare is after chocolate, and so forth. Although some of the hunters trap their prey, at least as often they find themselves frustrated witnesses to another seduction.

Bartel, however, is not just out to construct a carnal carousel. As if daring a comparison, he introduces a porno videotape into the action. The performers in the tape are cracked-mirror reflections of Clare and her guests who gather to watch it. But the porno actors are irredeemably imprisoned by the ridiculous roles and costumes they are forced to wear, while Bartel gives his characters the opportunity to doff their role-playing garments.

Sometimes Bartel’s characters–notably Juan and Lisabeth–have the opportunity to completely change, to realize that their restrictions are self-imposed and that they can summon the courage to move beyond them. Some, however, such as Howard Sa-ravian, never get the chance; though, for only a moment, the veil is lifted and we get a glimpse of his humanity.

Howard is a particularly illustrative character because he is the most apparently irredeemable, a self-indulgent hypocrite capable of sniffing and stealing a pair of his ex-lover’s underpants in the same moment that he fondly assures his wife of his affection. In a typically calculated emotional display, he steals fervid lines from Peter’s play in a ploy to win back Lisabeth. Even casting Wallace Shawn–a gifted farceur but a generally unsympathetic caricaturist–helps to reduce Howard to a nasty bit of egotism. And Bartel has the courage to encourage Shawn to reach his most unsympathetic extremes.

But at the end of the weekend, as Howard leaves for good, Bartel pauses to show him tucking money into his sleeping son Willie’s hand and then bending over to kiss him on the cheek. This combination of gestures, the one so pigheadedly insufficient and the other so pathetically apt, sums up Howard’s emotional ignorance and makes him appear more sorrowful than hateful. With such a strong cast–Bisset, as the film’s centerpoint, gives the kind of funny-strong performance associated with bygone screwball comedies–Bartel is able to fill the film with such transitory-but-charged moments. On the other hand, whenever a character lets loose a one-liner, Bartel makes sure that the frame holds at least one other figure, guaranteeing that the barbed shaft will always hit a human target. This two-toned approach allows a contrapuntal development, as the film’s comedy is gradually accompanied, and finally supplanted, by a surprising tenderness. Oddly, the one character who remains decidedly calculating is Bartel’s own, Dr. Mo, who finally performs an emotional kidnapping of Zandra with a breathtakingly conniving proposition.

This tenderness opens up Bartel’s comic vision and gives it breadth and life, partly because it avoids pat resolutions. Willie, for example, is dying of cancer, but very little is made of it within the film. If anything, it serves as the fuse for one of Howard’s more odiously facile displays. But at two points in the film, the child sits down at the piano and plays selections from Debussy’s solo piano suite Children’s Corner. As the music plays, Bartel softens his palette and lets the camera wander over the grounds of Clare’s house, where it catches both wind-blown trees and Frank and Juan watching lasciviously as Clare works out. Later Willie provides the musical accompaniment to the morning-after traffic of clandestine lovers sneaking back to their proper bedrooms. In both cases the music softens the action, even its rhythm, slowing it down. The lighting captures those moments of the day–dusk and dawn–that in their transitory nature paradoxically evoke permanence.

The Debussy selections–“Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” and “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”–have a gemlike brilliance born of a thematic and structural linkage between sadness and satire that somehow produces joy. Bartel has performed the same feat with his movie.