RAPE OF LOVE -- K-B Cerberus.

In New York, they say, many viewers of "Rape of Love" arrive just before the graphic and lingering rape scene and leave right afterward. It may say something about the men of Washington that none of the dozen who wore their trenchcoats to a recent matinee came late or left early; and if they found pornographic satisfaction in the brutal violation of the vulnerable and voluptuous Nathalie Nell, they paid for it by sitting through 90 more minutes of mature and effective feminist pleading.

The plea is not only for the right of every woman to walk the streets in psychological no less than physical safety but for the right of every man to cry or retreat when it's too hard to be strong or brave.

Writer-director Yannick Bellon has been both tough-minded and fair-minded in her examination of the causes and consequences of rape, which is one of the phenomena that, along with self-awareness and anticipation of death, set men apart from other animals.

To describe Bellon's approach as feminist is inadequate; "Rape of Love" is humanist , and Bellon's use of the rhetoric of the war between the sexes is sparing, pointed and only occasionally off-putting. The rapists are real people, not cardboard-cutout savages. One is married, and at home is shown to be gentle and loving with his wife, who in turn is revealed as a woman who sells her body to her husband for a washing machine.

This fullness of dimension is found in all the characterizations, although fully realized only in the roles of the victim and the doctor who treats her afterward. He is her friend and colleague (she is a nurse), and in perhaps the most poignant and subtle of the movie's scenes, his necessary and considerate examination of all her violated orifices is seen to be the final violation.

The film is warm, wise, tough and shrewd. It is also, at two hours, about one-third too short to cover the ground Bellon has staked out. In many places vignettes are presented where scenes are needed, and the story is left unconcluded -- although by no means inconclusive. Many nuances are lost through the inadequate subtitles, and while some of the idioms have no precise English equivalents, a high-school French student will recognize that a few of the characters are made to say words that are flat wrong.

Bellon may have intended the horrid-lascivious rape scene to draw men leaning to sadism and women leaning to masochism, on the principle that if you don't reach 'em you can't teach 'em. It sure will mess up anybody's rape fantasies.