"Providence," a belated arrival at the Outer Circle 2, turns out to be your basic insufferable literary film. The first English language production directed by Alain Resnais, it is dominated and "uinosly restricted from the outset by the haughty prose style affected by David Mercer, best though not necessarily fondly remembered for "Morgan!"

Resnais has always been drawn to scripts with a distinctive, even pretentious, literary cachet, but he never failed to impose a visual identity of his own. His stylistic contributions to "Hiroshima, mon Amour" or "Last Year at Marienbad" or "Muriel" never seemed subordinate. Mercer's text and tone appear to enteeble him, as well they might.

"Providence" certainly doesn't look unkempt, but it's a barren, enervating viewing experience. Resnais hasn't found witty, compensatory images to accompany the stilted prose, which is allowed to dictate the style and make all the witticisms, such as they are.

Only the British actors with distinctive styles of their own - John Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde - know how to manipulate the text to their advantage, mainly by reveling in the shameless bitchiness of their lines. For example, there's nothing amusing, in or out of context, about such deliberately snide remarks as, "I think he's fey; you are fey, aren't you? or "I don't actually smell any sax; hasn't there been any?" What makes them diverting is the unctuous aplomb of Bogarde as he speaks lines probably better left unspoken.

Gielgud has so much verbal authority that he even rises above a fairly loathsome character, an aging literary celebrity named clive Langham who is obsessed with the prospect of death and fabricates on inconclusive sequence of encounters in which the members of his family function as characters i.e. a new, self-centered work-in-progress.

The fancy conception never justifies itself in dramatic terms. The scene fragments Langham imagines aren't very interesting or revealing for their own sake, and three's no ironic payoff at the climax, when the presumably real editions of the puppets we've been watching turn up to celebrate Langham's 78th birthday.

On the contrary, the innocuousness of Bogarde's real legitimate son, Ellen Burstyn's real daughter-in-law and David Warner's real illegitimate son makes the old egotist's fictional abuse of them seem even nastier. Incredibly, Mercer isn't trying to expose or satirize literary blle in its senile stages. He seems to regard his protagonist as a gallant old man of letters, whose farewell to his birthday guests - "Leave with neither kiss nor touch, just my blessing" - is supposed to reflect complete sincerity and be cherished as an unforgetable benediction.

This is asking an awful lot, and certainly more than Mercer himself has prepared us for with his insistently contemptuous or pompous dialogue. Posed at twilight outside his stately mansion, Langham is evidently meant to symbolize the special heroism of a life dedicated to creating stately mansions out of words, but Mercer hasn't even provided us with an author whose hatefulness is eloquently expressed.

Obviously, Mercer is indulging an all-too-human weakness by overrating Langham's literary prowess and excusing his nastiness.Langham is spouting Mercer's stuff after all, and the author considers it admirable stuff. In this respect Mercer follows in the self-deceiving tradition of Charlie Chaplin in "Monsieur Verdoux" and Paddy Chayefsky in "Network."

Burstyn and Elaine Stritch sound excruciating in the major female roles, but it's difficult to tell if British actresses could have gotten any mileage out of Mercer's alternately supercilious and sepulchral tones.

Mercer does have a knack for writing his own pans. He spoils the penetrating - "It's been said about my work that the search for style leads to a want of feeling" - with the feebly appended, "I'd put it another way - I'd say style is feeling." However, there's no improving on the incisiveness of "The mindboggles, the head aches" and "Another bomb."