"Julia," opening today at the Jenifer 1, illustrates how a gracefully made movie can slip away by failing to establish a firm dramatic footing.

The source material, a chapter from "Pentimento," the second book of memoirs by playwright Lillian Hellman, is precarious for movie purposes without filmmakers brazen enough to pull out the melodramatic stops and treat it as a woman's version of "Beau Geste" crossed with "The Lady Vanishes."

But screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Fred Zinnemann are the most tasteful and faithful of adaptors. They decline to exploit such possibly entertaining affinities in Hellman's account of her last meeting, in Berlin in 1937, with her beloved girlhood friend Julia, killed soon after as a result of her involvement in anti-Nazi underground activities.

The filmmakers are astute enough to perceive some of the emotional turmoil underlying Hellman's idealized view of the improbably brilliant, noble, saintly Julia. They also seem to suspect that the inferiority felt and deference shown by Hellman in her relationship with Julia, her adolescent idol and mentor, set a pattern repeated in her relationship with Dashiell Hammett.

Unfortunately, even though the film doesn't seriously explore the consequences of a aero-worshipping inspiration and emotional dependence on the formation of a writer's personality and outlook, one may consider this the undeclared subject of the movie.

Jane Fonda's intriguing tensed-up performance as Hellman corroborates the impression. Irritable, intent and agonizingly self-conscious, Fonda suggests the internal conflicts gnawing at a tallented woman who craves the self-assurance, resolve and wisdom she sees in figures like Julia and Hammett, portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards.

This aspect of the material, however, may easily elude people who don't enter with a professional interest in Lillian Hellman or the creative neuroses of writers in general.

It appears that Sargent and Zinnemann are satisfied to accept the anecdotes about Julia in the same sentimental spirit that Hellman composed them. The casting of the majestic,eccentric Redgrave may give the film Julia an air of saintly self-sacrifice that appears as neurotic and treacherous as it is photogenically impressive, and this dissonance may be supported by the casting of Lisa Pelikan, a Bethesda girl in her first major film appearance, as the adolescent Julia; still, the movie is resolved on a apparently unquestioning note of inspiration, as if Hellman's portrait of Julia had not been contradicted in any way.

The crucial problem is that there's so little sense of urgency about anything the filmmakers do. Their style of gentlemanly consideration turns "Julia into an elegantly ephemeral picture, stirred to life now again by interesting performers.

For example, a young actor named John Glover seems to jump off the screen in a brief role as a funny, malicious wastrel who accuses the grown Lillian of having had a lesbian crush on Julia, an accusation that prompts her to slug him. One can't be sure if the filmmakers are trying to protect the heroine or have their doubts too, but at the time one is grateful for Glover's sheer wit and vitality, which gives an excessively decorous movie a sudden charge of conflict.

The film opens in a puzzling fashion, with a lovely composition of a silhouetted figure, presumably Hellman, fishing on a lake before the break of dawn and Fonda's voiceover reading of the explanatory prologue to "pentimento": "Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter 'repented' changed his mind. . . . That is all I mean about in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now."

Since the movie isn't called "Pentimento" this sequence is at best a superfluous rhetorical flourish. The fact is that it's difficult to see how the word pentimento applies even to Hellman's portrait of Julia, a character who seems too good to be true.

Following the expendable prologue, the movie begins with Hellman and Hammett in seclusion in 1934 during the writing of "The Children's Hour," picks up girlhood impressions of Lillian and Julia, celebrates the Broadway success of "The Children's Hour" (Fonda is particularly good in the scene where a woozy Lillian walks into Sardi's and tries to act dignified as the customers stand to applaud her), and only then gets on the suspense track.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn't snap to attention after Fonda finally becomes a reluctant secret courier. If anything, the depiction of this mission exaggerates the blundering, oblivious image of Hellman as an espionage operative that emerged for the original story.

The difference comes from actually seeing Fonda look helpless and bewildered while as small detachment of spices shepherd her from Paris to Berlin and endeavor to keep her from giving herself away. The effect is irresistibly funny, especially after Fonda is persuaded to don the big fur hat that has the money in the lining. If "Julia" becomes a hit, this railroad journey is bound to be extensively parodied.

Recruiting Lillian for this mission appears to cause more problems for Julia's comrades than it could possibly solve, while Lillian's shame at her own miserable, sleepwalking performance seems to be at once justified and endearing. Nevertheless, we're evidently meant to take Julia's accolades to heart: You've been better than a good friend to me; you've done something important."

There's something about this remark that makes me squirm, although it's articulated without a trace of irony. It seems to betray the condescending, manipulative side of Julia that her adoring, submissive friend never consciously acknowledges. Doing so might reveal one's own susceptibility to being influenced, and by the force of personality as much as a just cause.

Feeling perpetually inferior to a vision of militant feminine virtue like Julia must provoke a resentful reaction, even if it's directed not at the person but at the wealth and security that makes her grand gestures earlier to afford. Fonda's tautness, the inability of her Lillian to relax, to achieve the poise she tries to affect, appears to be a symptom of something . Perhaps it's not unreasonable to read it as repressed anger and resentment at one's own real or imagined limitationns. Hellman can't seem to get free of her mentors, who remain moral and artistic authorities. At times she appears to torment herself by aspiring to their perfection, which doesn't necessarily suit her temperament and capabilities. But who could be worthy of a Julia?

Ironically, Hellman attained something of the status of Julia at the last Oscar ceremony, where she waas introduced by Jane Fonda to a standing ovation. Two young women who won awards for documentary films, Barbara Kopple and Lynne Littman, made a point of saying what a privilege it was to share the stage with Lillian Hellman. It was a love reast evidently predicted on sweet misapprehensions, inspired in part by Hellman's self-serving account of her rather perplexing response to Cold War politics, the blacklist and a summons from HUAC in her third book of memoirs, "Scoundrel Time."

The woman at the Oscars was a righteous conquering heorine accepting tribute from a filmmaking generation probably too young to appreciate her authentic, complicated significance. It played, but it was an act.

Despite its gentility and evasiveness, "Julia" may have come much closer to the truth about Lillian Hellman on the strength of Jane Fonda's edgy, persuasive performance, which reveals an intelligent woman who could'nt feel more unsuree of herself or less like a conquering heroine.