Julian Kaye, the protagonist of "American Gigolo," is supposed to demonstrate his erotic savvy by purring lines like the following to the wealthy women who pay for his services:

"I can make you relax, relax like you've never relaxed before. Make you aroused like you've never been aroused before . . . I know how to touch you. Where to touch you. How to kiss you. Where to kiss you . . ."

Writer-director Paul Schrader, last represented by "Hardcore," demonstrates little erotic aptitude or creative passion of his own. It's apparent that he doesn't know where to touch, smooch or otherwise excite an audience into investing an intimate human or merely sensation-seeking interest in the fate of Julian, a status-conscious gigolo whose social advancement is threatened by a murder frame-up.

Despite the seductive promises, "American Gigolo," which opens today at area theaters, remains a peculiar impression of sexual opportunism and fashionable vice in contemporary Los Angeles. Part character study, part romantic melodrama, part murder mystery and completely expendable, "Gigolo" suggests that Schrader has exhausted the obsessive vein that initially won him fame as the screen writer of "Taxi Driver."

Briefly, the plot traces Richard Gere's development at long last of an ability to truly love. Trapped by the frame-up, which evidently is engineered by a client's husband, he seems to about to be exonerated at the final fadeout.

As a director, Schrader tends to diminish the potential impact of his own highly derivative material. "Gigolo" is too morose and artisitically self-conscious for prurient fascination even when Schrader is up to his neck in illicit and kinky sex.

His excessively formal approach is perhaps best illustrated in the "sex scene" between Gere as Juilian and Lauren Hutton as Michelle, a politician's unhappy wife whose love is destined to redeem the desreputable hero. They first entwine in a fussy montage of limbs and torsos arranged upon silky sheets. The style seems far more appropriate to commercial photography than erotic actuality. Far from suggesting sexual consummation, these cliched images make the intimacy of hero and heroine indistinguishable from a 30-second ad for beding or body lotion.

By the time it sputters to a fade out, "Gigolo" pays a heavy price for such sustained pretentiousness in tawdry circumstances. This movie invites a sort of sarcasm that destroyed "Moment By Moment" without ever generating as much naive entertainment value.

Schrader has enlisted collaborators who know something about sensual pictorial evocation, but their artistry doesn't flourish under his control. The lighting of cinematographer John Bailey and the sets of production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti reflect elegant sensibilities. Nevertheless, their visual schemes end up looking stale after being filtered through Schrader's humorless, enervated direction.

For example, Bailey throws so much striped sunlight and shadow from windows covered by venetian blinds that the motif grows unintentionally comic. One begins to suspect that all these picturesque stripes must be a clue to something or other. "The Venetian Blinds Murder Case" might have been a more appropriate title than "American Gigolo."

Discouraged by the flop of "Moment By Moment," John Travolta wisely pulled out of the starring role in "American Gigolo," which would have exposed him to double jeopardy. Gere's inability to make Juilian believable must be blamed primarily on Schrader, who hasn't given the character discernible dramatic substance to begin with.

Gere continues to suggest flickers of Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Montgomery Clift without synthesizing a distinctive and appealing new personality out of the obvious influences.

Gere's curious lack of definition was more damaging to "Yanks" where the material cried out for the emergence of a young romantic star with the straight-forward, unassuming appeal recently demonstrated by Christopher Reeve in "Superman" and Frederic Forrest in "The Rose." Working for a director as furtive and self-centered as Schrader, on a story that probably grows out of Schrader's own vanity-ridden self-doubts about his rise to prominence in Hollywood, simply reinforces the impression of an able, attractive young actor searching in vain for a screen identity.

It would be worth reviving "Roseland" to compare Gere's Gigolo with a similiar but infinitely more interesting character played by Christopher Walken. In "Roseland" Walken appeared to enlarge an intriguing role through the power of unusually sensitive screen acting. Gere seems to lack the technique and expreience necessary to protect himself from Schrader's superficial view of Juilian.

Lauren Hutton has never evolved a confident acting style in feature films. "Gigolo" finds her beginning to lose her looks while failing to perfect a negligible talent.

In supporting roles Nina Van Pallandt engages in a losing struggle with English pronunciation while playing Gere's pimp and Hector Elizondo succumbs to a crude imitation of Peter Falk's Columbo, called Detective Sunday, a devastating example of Schrader's sense of humor.

Bill Duke is extremely effective as Gere's conniving ex-pimp, and Brian Davies and K Callan seem convincing as Hutton's husband and Gere's steadiest client, respectively. These three performances suggest that verisimilitude is not wholly out of Paul Schrader's range, but it's like Richard Gere's eye contact -- so fleeting that it never instills a sense of trust.