Yves Montand and Romy Schneider enacted one of the most believable and affecting love stories on the modern screen in Claude Sautet's "Cesar and Rosalie." It's a pity their reunion in " Clair de Femme," a new French import at the Outer Circle, should prove such a maudlin washout.

The fault lies with the material rather than the stars. It's unlikely that any actors could transcend the atmosphere of gallantly suffering, sadder-but-wiser cliche that permeates this account of a chance meeting and blossoming affair between middle-aged psuedo-sophisticates battered by similiar marital calamities.

Someone behind the camera -- either Romain Gary, who wrote the original novel, or Costa-Gavras, who adapted and directed it -- has been unable to distinguish affectation from sensibility.

A despondent Montand is discovered at the airport awaiting a flight to Caracas he soon elects to miss. His inability to go through with a plane reservation becomes a (very slight) runnning gag, a clue to emotional distress calculated to leave a rueful little lump in the throat. Indeed, the story develops a fatal fondness for rueful little lumps.

Back in Paris after his false start, Montand exits a taxi and literally bumps into Schneider. Having Met Cute, they repair to a nearby cafe for preliminary soulful perusal and enigmatic conversation.

Audiences could easily mistake the opening reel for a deadpan spoof of espionage movies. The characters speak a telephathic patois that would certainly be more amusing as a code language. "Your smile shows you were happy for many years," says one party hopefully. "You won't find anything here -- not even a lifebuoy," says the other.

The new-found lovers share bewildering confidences. "There are times I have no desire to to be happy," remarks Schneider. "Who mentioned happiness?" Montand retorts, suddenly sounding like a stand-up comic.

Although his profession remains a mystery, the Montand character betrays himself as some kind of self-pitying literary gent, probably a respected journalistic pundit. His unhappiness appears to derive from a marital rift (later revealed to be a tragedy that flatters his vanity more than a mere separation could hope to) inspiring a relentless plague of commentary about the ever-melancholy human condition.

"We must all strive for the impossible," he observes on one occasion, "for we are all masterpieces on two feet." Warming to his exquisitely indulged sense of despair, he rages, "I'm not a religious man, but there's a Nazi someplace who treats us with monstrous cruelty and indifference."

After lending a sympathetic ear and making a game but inhibited try to comfort this heavyweight sufferer in the sack, Schneider reveals that she too has a cross to bear. Traumatized by a car accident in which their child was killed, Schneider's husband exists in a benignly demented state, muttering gibberish and cared for by his wealthy mother, a fussy French-Russian aristrocrat despised by the heroine (with scant evident justification) and portrayed by Lila Kerdrova. Montand is introduced to Schneider's misfortune at a bizarre birthday soiree Kedrova hosts for her poor boy.

This nuthouse sequence is given a serendipitous comic distinction by wonderful misspellings in the English subtitles. "Clair de Femme" may have more misspellings than any subtitled movie ever released. "Do you feel less lovely now?" Schneider asks Montand, obviously meaning (and saying) "lonely." Moments later the French word for "Jews" is misplaced and a sentence is translated, "Who said the Jesus aren't Christians?"

The upshot of this misbegotten romance is suitably vague. Montand and Schneider may or may not sustain their cockamamie opening moves. But since the time spent bringing them together seems misspent, an imagined future holds no promise.