Like many a conceptual monstrosity inflicted on stage or screen, "I Love You," an account of folie a deux Brazilian style, demonstrates an amazing facility for taking the critical words right out of your mouth.

Indeed, writer-director Arnaldo Jabor seems better at anticipating rejection than making dramatic sense of his own premise, characters and vagrant themes. When the leading man, Paulo Cesar Pereio, cast as a droopy, self-pitying bourgeois wretch named Paulo, remarks "I'm a creep, too," you're compelled to admit that he has his own number right there. Later, Paulo volunteers a verdict on the very subject of the movie--his rebound affair with a fellow loser, Sonia Braga as an ex-stewardess named Maria--that again hits the nail on the head: "What a sordid melodrama!"

Evidently an uproarious success in Brazil, "I Love You" seems ill-equipped to endear itself to American art-house patrons, presumably attracted by Braga, who seemed an intoxicating discovery--a young actress at once sultry and touching--as the heroine of Bruno Barretto's lyrical sex comedy "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands." Jabor is also trafficking in sex comedy, but he imposes a coarsened, rattlebrained viewpoint that deprives Braga of her distinctive romantic vulnerability. She's physically exposed to a considerable extent, and some of the carnal simulation seems to straddle the line between soft-core and hard-core depiction, but Jabor's context would do more for a straight porn actress than a straight actress with extraordinary sex appeal.

The role of Maria is not exactly inspired; it's a haggard porn cliche' that might only be toned up by satirical wit, a conspicious Jabor deficiency. Despondent over her demolished affair with a married man, Maria impulsively responds to Paulo's creepy overtures and humors his misconception that she's a whore. The new lovers are secluded in a posh high-rise, whose panoramic picture-window view of Rio keeps making you long to leave the nitwit characters and get out on that sparkling town. Predictably, the kinked-up sex is a preamble to banal redemption. After taking it out on each other, Paulo and Maria supposedly find True Happiness on the other side of mutual exploitation and degradation.

This premise certainly promises more satisfaction if developed humorously rather than mawkishly. Jabor has a measurably humorous side, and not all his jests depend on sharing inside jokes about the exotic cultural and sexual humiliation of Being Brazilian. Certain off-the-wall interludes are funny, especially a brief sequence about a visionary named Waldir, who proposes to catch and neutralize all the world's Bad Vibes in a 2001-style monolith, and another with Guarcy Rodrigues as an overwhelmed morgue orderly hovering on the brink of paranoid dementia. Even the maddening mad love affair has fleeting funny touches, suggesting that Jabor may have lost his train of thought while fiddling with the idea of a Brazilian burlesque of "Last Tango in Paris."

Unfortunately, he's ended up with a crass, erotic bummer that can be fairly described as the Brazilian counterpart to "Swept Away." Moreover, Jabor seems to have worn out Braga's welcome in one relentlessly raunchy stroke. Encouraged to come on slutty and devious while catering to the delusions of a sniveling cad, she loses her erotic mystery.

It may be impossible to avoid despising "I Love You" if you savored that image, which seemed sexy in a new way. The actress manipulated by Jabor is tarted up in a stale, dispiriting way. This is Braga's first movie to appear here since "Dona Flor," and it's as if she'd already been reduced to exploitation vehicles, obliged to walk the streets in cinematic terms.