"From the Life of the Marionettes," now at the Outer Circle, is a methodically inconclusive new meditation on despair from jolly old Ingmar bergman.

An imaginary criminal case history, compiled from an omniscient, arbitrary perspective, the movie begins with the depiction of a shocking, apparently unmotivated murder and then sexual violation of a prostitute by her client at the sex club where she toils as an "exotic dancer."

The subsequent episodes are meant to form a psychological profile of the killer, a young businessman named Peter Egerman (Robert Atzorn). Consisting of ominous incidents preceding the murder and fragments of police interrogation and observation following it, the Egerman File is suggestive, but even its suggestiveness seldom transcends a banal level of speculation about the motives and mental state of a seranged individual.

Bergman's first English-language production since moving to Munich four years ago, "Marionettes" seems much more confident and fluent than his detours into English, which resulted in two of the glittering fiascoes of his career, "The Touch" and "The Serpent's Egg." While it remains more respectable (and less amusing) than such reckless flirtations with self-parody, "Marionettes" falls a notch or two below Bergman's last effort, "Autumn Sonata," a Swedish-language production shot in Norway.

"marionettes" keeps toying with scalding intimacies without quite achieving a revelatory boil. The first sequence after the murder shows the killer's psychiatrist, Dr. Jensen (Martin Benrath), being questioned by the police. He describes being summoned to the murder scene by his patient and calling the authorities. He characterizes Egerman as "a talented, charming, conscientious man" who led "a comfortable, quiet life." When asked if anything appeared to be troubling his patient, the doctor replies, "Nothing serious."

The next sequence, set before the murder, reveals that Dr. Jensen was lying through his beard. In this banner year for cinematic shrink-baiting, Jensen emerges as the most infamous practioner yet. Egerman had in fact consulted the doctor about recurrent homicidal and suicidal urges. "It frightens me that I want to kill my wife," he confesses. "I've been dreaming about killing her for the past two years."

Dr. Jensen is far more intrigued by Egerman's incidental revelation that he and wife Katarina share an "open marriage" which seems hunky-dory from the standpoint of sexual gratification. "We've both been unfaithful," he says, "but it has been best when we've been unfaithful."

Desperate for guidance, Egerman pleads, "Tell me it's a matter of hormones!" Dr. Jensen tells him nothing of the kind. He does advise him to "Go for a brisk walk" and return for another session. As soon as he believes the patient has departed, Dr. Jensen rings up Mrs. Egerman and asks her to drop by for a little tete-a-tete.

Katarina arrives, in the striking form of Christine Bushegger (ever alert to emotionally charged young actresses, Bergman also provides an impressive showcase for Rita Russek, who plays the ill-fated prostitute). Dr. Jensen instantly proposes a session in his adjoining bedchamber. Katarina seems agreeable but then changes her mind, while brushing her hair in the bathroom, which may or may not be significant.

Civilized gent that he is, Dr, Jensen settles for schnapps and polite conversation about Peter, who has been hiding all the while in a darkened foyer, eavesdropping on doctor and wife. Katarina says that she's been unfaithful far too often and professes to love her husband dearly. "We're each other's children," she reflects wistfully. "That's why we'll never be wise and mature." Despite the reassuring drift of these sentiments, events tend to indicate that they failed to console the suffering eavesdropper.

We meet Peter's mother (Lola Muethel), an ex-actress, and detect that no love is lost between her and her daughter-in-law. Katarina has a business partner (fashion's their racket) named Tim, a melancholy middle-aged homosexual who gets a long confessional monologue that appears to incorporate the filmmakers's idea of what drives people to despair, a fatalistic outlook foreshadowed by the title: "I'm governed by forces I cannot master . . . lovers, doctors, pills, work. . . ." Tim is also present during an attempted suicide by Peter and an ugly scene of recrimination between him and Katarina. sUltimately, Tim reveals that he nurtured the vain hope that Peter would some day leave Katarina and turn to him.

It may or may not help to recall that the Egermans of "Marionettes" are an expansion of the acrimonious couple seen briefly in Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage." Bergman depicts one of Peter's dreams, a floating, white-on-white enigma which seems to contrast murderous with tender impulses (and brings out the worst in the damaged screen at the Outer Circle 1, which has a big square discolored and punctured patch slightly right of center).

Dr. Jensen is permitted a concluding, obviously untrustworthy, opinion about Peter: latent homosexuality, caused by conflicting loyalties between possessive mom and spouse, resulting in obsession to possess someone else wholly through an act of murder or himself through an act of suicide. This diagnosis reveals more about the doctor than the patient, of course, but given the evidence Bergman chooses to present, any conclusion would be almost as presumptuous. His own preference for mysterious, uncontrollable drives isn't exactly novel or penetrating either.

Although the movie doesn't expose the makings of an exemplary case of misery gone berserk, it does have fitfully gripping sequences. The preliminary byplay betwen victim and murderer is full of explosive erotic tension, particularly when photographed in slightly harsh color. (For some reason Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist switch to black-and-white at the close of the murder scene and retain it until the epilogue, which reverts to color.)

A few monologues demonstrate Bergman's flair for placing characters in a talkative state of self-hypnosis. But you may cringe at some of the devices used to frame these passages, like Tim bitterly addressing his own mirror image, and some of the confessional rhetoric, like Tim's self-loathing recollection that his sex life occurs with his nose "so far down in the gutter" that he "nearly chokes." Talk about piquant!