"Frances" is a new biographical stinker that insists on remaining unreasonably disjointed for 2 1/2 hours.

In addition, it labors under the burden of a weirdly castaway romantic subplot, which identifies a character called Harry York (Sam Shepard), some kind of Seattle sleuth, as the heroine's abiding but inexplicably clandestine passion.

Throughout the movie this phantom Prince Charming keeps popping in and out of the fractured continuity to serve as narrator and to offer the heroine temporary solace and support before slipping out of her disaster-prone life again. If there's something preventing Frances and Harry from going public with their attachment, it remains mysterious. You keep waiting for Harry to save everyone decades of agony by making an honest woman of poor Frances.

At one point in the story, Jessica Lange, a gallant victim of artistic nonsupport in the title role, has returned to home-town Seattle for the premiere of Howard Hawks' "Come and Get It," a tolerable mediocrity that launched Frances Farmer as a promising, gorgeous new adornment to Hollywood in 1936. Following the gala event she imparts a bit of bad news to a curiously marginal, callow young companion called Dick Steele, portrayed by an unlucky young actor named Christopher Pennock.

"I think we need some time apart," she says, instantly reminding anyone who's been paying attention that Frances and Dick have never been seen together before this premiere sequence, where the hapless screenwriters belatedly introduce them as newlyweds. This kiss-off sounds absurdly abrupt. It would simplify exposition to eliminate the marital entanglement entirely.

There's no way to account for these moth-eaten gaps in the plot unless one enjoys considerable familiarity with both Farmer's history and the sources exploited by director Graeme Clifford and writers Eric Bergren, Christopher DeVore and Nicholas Kazan. Unfortunately, the familiarity may enhance contempt for their work. For example, Farmer's first husband was an aspiring young actor named Bill Anderson who ultimately became familiar to moviegoers under the slightly preposterous stage name Leif Erickson. Although the marriage failed, the couple had enough in common to share a life style that seemed more casual and bohemian than the Hollywood norm for the mid-'30s. In "Will There Really Be a Morning?", a ghosted "autobiography" published two years after her death (she succumbed to throat cancer in 1970), Farmer recalls Erickson with tenderness and suggests that the marriage was overwhelmed by her drives: "I was not a good or even an attentive wife . . . I was miserably unhappy and deeply discontented. Let it be said, however, that no man on earth could have filled my expectations."

The dramatic groundwork necessary to account for Farmer's turmoil and breakdown is never adequately prepared. Ultimately, the filmmakers bank on the fact that Farmer's misfortunes can be exploited as an atrocity; sooner or later those misfortunes will lead to nightmarish years of confinement at a Washington state mental institution.

Once the institutional outrages--shock therapy, sexual molestation and, finally, transorbital lobotomy, an unsubstantiated charge derived from William Arnold's conjectures in "Shadowland," a biography of Frances--begin to accumulate, the filmmakers may be able to conceal their ineptitude, since one's sympathy for anyone incarcerated in vicious, degrading surroundings is overwhelming. (In "Frances" it also picks up the sluggish tempo.)

Farmer herself identified resentment of a domineering mother as the fundamental source of trouble. The filmmakers don't totally overlook this primal cause, or several other factors that probably left Farmer even more vulnerable to a breakdown, notably a cruel romantic and professional betrayal at the hands of playwright Clifford Odets. What they excel at is losing track of characters, motivations and relationships.

The ongoing rivalry between ambitious Frances and her mother Lillian, a formidable publicity hound, is certainly introduced. The movie recreates the episode of Frances, a drama student at the University of Washington, offending her mother by accepting an excursion to the Soviet Union sponsored by a Communist paper, and Lange seems to be preparing the way for subsequent reprisals when she challenges Kim Stanley, cast as Lillian, with the line, "I learned your lesson very well: Do what you want and everyone else be damned."

But the follow-up material one has a right to expect is never supplied in this film. Lillian may seem the crucial emotional stumbling block for Frances while on the scene, but between domestic blowups the onus shifts to Odets (impersonated with laughable rather than sinister arrogance by Jeffrey DeMunn, usually accompanied by Jordan Charney as an equally freakish Harold Clurman) or Louella Parsons or Hollywood in general or the cops or the shrinks. It becomes a random, indiscriminate indictment.

The failure to keep the mother's predominant role in focus--after all, it was Lillian who signed the commitment papers--is aggravated by the failure to permit Frances the integrity of her own instability and folly. Farmer's memoirs seem authentic and compelling because the narrator doesn't spare herself.

Unfortunately, the Frances on the screen always does seem a beautiful patsy and victim. She never burns with the self-centered avidity one feels in the Farmer who recalls, "I carried the theater like a flaming standard . . . I was consumed, and I was also not fit to live with, or so Mamma said, for anything or anyone interfering with my studies provoked a tantrum . . . I was confident, and I was revoltingly aggressive . . . I was going to the top, and no one could stand in my way. The rest of the world, Mamma included, could go to hell."

What happened to this Frances Farmer? I suspect the men entrusted with interpreting her tragedy found it easy to obscure a female protagonist whose own drives could take intimately threatening, dynamic forms. Their Frances is only a threat to provincial reactionaries and medical quacks, who ultimately get even by performing a lobotomy. Maybe that's why Odets and Clurman seem to resemble Mad Doctors. It might be difficult to admit that the men really put on the spot by actresses with Farmer's incendiary combination of sex appeal and ambition are men of the theater.