FOUR years ago, filmmaker Whit Stillman made a smashing debut with ``Metropolitan,'' a smart and often hilarious comedy about the younger members of New York's social elite.
Its characters were precocious preppies, debutantes, and hangers-on trying desperately to enjoy their coddled lives despite occasional suspicions that their privileges are undeserved. Wry, talkative, and deliberately undramatic, the film achieved wide popularity while avoiding the temptations of today's money-driven movie marketplace.
Stillman's new movie, ``Barcelona,'' serves the same delightful dish with an international flavor. Set in the colorful Spanish city during the last years of the cold war, it follows the adventures of two American men - a bookish sales representative and his cousin, a pushy Navy officer - as they wrestle with professional problems, romantic entanglements, and their own uneasy relationship.
At moments, Stillman goes beyond his previous work by injecting notes of high emotion and even melodrama into the tale. This reflects certain tensions that existed in Barcelona during its early days of post-Franco freedom, when years of repression gave way to new explorations of heedless and even hedonistic living. Yet the film's primary interest remains fixed on the itchy inner lives rather than the fleeting outer experiences of its superbly written characters.
Here as in ``Metropolitan,'' what distinguishes the best of these characters is their poignant blend of self-assertion and self-doubt, expressed through finely tuned dialogue and also through details of body language. It's always rewarding to watch how Stillman's performers stand, sit, and position themselves in relation to others, even during scenes that do little to advance the story. Few filmmakers have such insight into the tumultuous innards of apparently placid personalities, and even fewer are bold enough to anchor whole movies on such subtleties.
Acting is naturally a key ingredient of Stillman's films, and ``Barcelona'' is only a tad less ingenious than ``Metropolitan'' in this regard. The main characters are played by ``Metropolitan'' alumni, Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, who have mastered the demands of Stillman's approach. Other key members of the cast, including Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino as the women who attract our heroes, slide into the Stillman wavelength with equal dexterity. Jack Gilpin and Hellena Schmied are among the expertly chosen performers in smaller roles.
In the technical department, a special nod goes to John Thomas for his exquisite camera work. He also worked on ``Metropolitan.''
The setting and story of ``Barcelona'' present different visual challenges, and Thomas has triumphantly met them, capturing the continual color and intermittent chaos of his subject without lapsing into mere prettiness.
Like everyone else involved, he deserves applause for a thoughtfully made and refreshingly literate film that also packs an assortment of ironic laughs. Three cheers.
* ``Barcelona'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains a brief sex scene and some violence.