PAUL BARTEL, director and star of "Eating Raoul," is a middle-aged, middling-sized man with about half a head of hair, long cheeks and deep-set eyes. Except for the eyes, which give the rather odd impression of bemusedly scrutinizing the rest of him, Bartel looks very much the Middle American Everyman. He has directed two critically acclaimed shorts, "Naughty Nurse" and "The Secret Cinema," and three low-budget feature films in the Roger Corman genre format. But it is only with the provocatively titled "Eating Raoul"--a comic parable of sex, violence and food in America--that Bartel has won serious attention as a film artist.

In "Eating Raoul," Paul and Mary Bland, an island of loving, sex-phobic sanity in swinger-happy Hollywood, have only two weeks to come up with a $20,000 deposit on the restaurant of their dreams. With Paul out of work and Mary a mere hospital nutritionist, they devise the doubly satisfying scheme of murdering swingers for their money. Thus, they help themselves and the world in a single blow.

Nor is there want of lurid details here: frying-pan murders, a hot-tub orgy, dead swingers sold off for dog food, even a minor character called Doris the Dominatrix. Still, Bartel is gratified to hear this latest film, his first independent feature, praised as lyrical, and the Blands, played by himself and Mary Woronov, described as gentle people.

"Yes, that's precisely what we were aiming for," says Bartel, speaking for himself and coscriptwriter Richard Blackburn. "My instinct about movies is that they are essentially vehicles for personality. If the audience warms to the personality on the screen, then the writer/director can push that character quite far, make all sorts of interesting social comments through the character without seeming tedious or didactic. The original idea for 'Eating Raoul' was that myself and Mary Woronov, an old friend and an actress well known in experimental circles, would play ourselves. We assumed the audience would like Paul and Mary Bland because Mary and I are likeable. My first thought was that we should be a detective pair, but then Richard Blackburn said, 'Oh, that's too conventional, that's been done. Let's be a little more daring and make them the murderers instead.' And I thought that was a great idea. We'd do 'Kind Hearts and Coronets': Victimize Paul and Mary and then, once the audience sympathized with them as victims, we'd let the Blands fight back."

The idea for another important character, the homebodyish "Doris the Dominatrix," came from an article Bartel saw in The Village Voice. "The subject of the piece was a real Dominatrix who was 18 years old and had been trained by her mother," Bartel recalls. "The reporter found her at home with her baby, talking about the predilections of her customers--who were mostly businessmen--in a very matter-of-fact way, as if she were in the crocheting business. Then we thought, what if we take this one step further? What if our nice middle-class protagonists, Paul and Mary, have this same attitude toward killing? They can make money by luring these perverts to their apartment and killing them."

Though "Eating Raoul" cost less than $1 million, a veritable miracle in the movie business today, "nobody would give us a penny. They said, 'Audiences aren't interested in black comedy, and starring who? You and Mary?' When there was no interest in the script, we decided to shoot some scenes in the Blands' apartment, over a weekend, hoping that we could impress a big studio and get them to finance the rest of the film." But the early rushes won no eager bidders and, to further complicate matters, Bartel soon learned the building they'd used for the Blands' apartment was scheduled for demolition. "So I went to my parents, and they gave me the money to shoot all the apartment scenes. Ultimately, it was savings from acting in and directing other people's movies and the money my parents got from selling their house in Montclair, New Jersey, that paid for the film, which we shot in 22 days, mostly on weekends, over the course of a year."

A parable of capitalist depravity, shot on middle-class capital? Well, not exactly. While there have been comparisons to the more politically radical works of Andy Warhol and John Waters ("Polyester," "Female Troubles"), Bartel is the first to admit that his is the less biting vision.

"If you look at John Waters' work or the later Andy Warhol," Bartel said, "you see that beneath the surface humor there's a pessimistic attitude.

"Any good work of art is resonant. While 'Eating Raoul' is meant to be entertainment, it's not a message film by any means."

If Bartel has any regrets about "Eating Raoul," it's that he was forced to stereotype the swingers as wealthy and aggressive. "We did some research and, in fact, the main characteristic of swinging isn't rape or attack--quite the opposite. The whole idea is that people who have the same ideas about sexual freedom and exchanging partners get together. It's very civilized. Also, when you go to swinger clubs in Los Angeles, most of the people aren't rich. There are rich swingers; so we were technically honest on our portraits, but the main reason we made these people wealthy was so they wouldn't take sympathy away from the Blands. It would have been quite a different film if we'd had poor swingers being knocked off by the rising middle class."