Art. Life. Sex. Dirty Words. Deaths. Values. Incontinence. Free Will. Love. Hate. Family Problems. God. All the important questions. Plus "Fascist Gangs Meet the Wolfman."

That's what I think "Providence" (now showing at the Outer Circle) is supposed to mean - but there's no reason you should take my word for what I think. I might be drunk. After all, George Bernard Shaw once proposed that the only way to understand "Hamlet" was to assume that every character in it was drunk from beginning to end.

Alain Resnais, who directed this movie, has taken the idea to heart. Every character in "Providence" drinks continously from beginning to end. It's only white wine - but you'd ve surprised at the cumulative effect.

Let's begin at the beginning. This is a movie made by the director of "Last Year at Marienbad," a very mysterious and portentous movie about death and stuff."Providence" seems to be an attempt to make a comedy on the same topic. At the beginning, people are turning into werewolves. And a soldier (David Warner) kills one who asks to die. He goes on trial for murder and the Prosecutor (Dirk Bogarde) treats him with personal contempt. When the soldier goes free, the Prosecutor's wife (Ellen Burstyn) decides to go to bed with soldier. Only the soldier isn't interested, possibly because, as the Prosecutor points out, "He's fey."

There is also a real dissection of a real corpse, complete with somebody cutting through the ribcage with something that looks like a stainless steel hedge-clipper. There are more werewolf people. Lines like: "I hate violence. It reeks of spontaneity."

And through it all is the voice of the Author (John Gielgud) who may be dreaming or writing all this, who has a great deal of trouble with his sphincter and his memories, both fond and foul, and who does not seem able to keep anything under control.

The Prosecutor is his son. The Prosecutor's mistress (Elaine Stritch) looks exactly like the Author's wife (Elaine Stritch), who committed suicide long ago. The mistress is dying of an unnamed and loathesome disease. Maybe the Author killed the wife and it's also symbolic that the son is the Prosecutor? Is dying symbolized by turning into a werewolf? The innocent soldier who killed the werewolf (just as the Author killed the wife?) starts to turn into a werewolf himself. (Actually, he looks more like he's turning into Allep Oop - but I don't think that can possibly be symbolic. Can it?) And the Prosecutor kills him, after which he becomes a victim himself . . .

And the Author wakes up, just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Only he has two dogs who look exactly like Toto. Could that possibly be symbolic? Through all this runs . . . a soccer player in uniform.

"Providence" is a movie that seems to ask the most important question in the history of the French cinema: When does Surrealist Dream Imagery degenerate into pointless silliness?

A lot of "Providence" seems to be consciously and genuinely funny. Dirk Bogarde (who looks more like Katherine Hepburn with each passing year) is such a marvelous bitch. Finding his wife and the soldier in his bedroom, he walks to the everpresent wine-bucket, pours the fiftieth drink of the movie, and says, "Well, I don't actually smell [sniff, sip] sex . . . Was there any?"

Gielgud is superb as the randy, dying, drunken, symbolical old pain in the ass of an Author. He is the only one who doesn't sip-sip-sip all movie long. He swigs. "Live by the gut, die by the gut," he says, mockheroically preparing to take another suppository, wallowing in bed, and it is a scene to remember.

But Bogarde and Gielgud are such old pros that they're director-proof. Everybody else seems confused, wooden and silly. Ellen Burstyn rests her chin on the knee of the Greatest Living Author and looking yp wistfully says, "Tell me . . . Will it be terrible . . . dying without God?" Stuff like that has the power to make people laugh, without convincing them they're supposed to.

It's hard to tell, watching "Providence," when you're laughing at the movie and when you're laughing with it, I believe there are many people who will find that very symbolic, too.