Perhaps the looniest motif of "The Moon in the Gutter" is the spectacle of heads getting battered. Repeatedly, characters suffer resounding blows to the head or ram their skulls into hard, unyielding surfaces.

This kind of cranial distress may account for the woozy, bewildered continuity of "The Moon in the Gutter," a French import now at the K-B Janus. The members of the cast, especially Gerard Depardieu as the sappy protagonist, are obliged to wander through ineffable-to-ridiculous encounters and dream states in an outrageously theatrical, picturesque setting of squalor. In such a rarefied, stupefying cinematic atmosphere, it's difficult to resist the conclusion that the director has taken leave of his senses.

Jean-Jacques Beineix is the young filmmaker who enjoyed a glittering international success only a year ago with the stylish mystery thriller "Diva," his first feature. "The Moon in the Gutter," bombarded with catcalls and walkouts during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, has come as a shocking disillusionment to the vast majority of reviewers beguiled by "Diva."

Confronted by "Moon in the Gutter," it's easy to surmise that the intuitive tendencies Beineix consistently finessed in "Diva" have played him grotesquely false in his second movie. Now he imposes an extravagant, perilously somnambulistic pictorial style, on a pretext of morbid, fatalistic romance, which collapses under the burden. Far too flimsy to support an inflated, heavy-breathing presentation, "Moon in the Gutter" self-destructs as a result of Beineix's reckless affectations.

The wreckage accumulates mostly around Depardieu's hapless, immobilized figure, so one can understand why an actor might feel sufficiently betrayed by a director to bad-mouth their collaboration publicly. Interviews with Nastassia Kinski, the ostensible leading lady, suggest that she sympathizes with Beineix, but the finished film reveals that she may not be able to distinguish a bit part from a leading role in the first place. Depardieu plays a stevedore haunted by the death of his sister, who is discovered bleeding into the gutter from a slashed throat after being raped by a shadowy molester. Kinski, entering on a delirious red carpet of lush music, enraptured lighting and billowy indoor breezes, represents the romantic fulfillment and social escape the hero craves but cannot, alas, attain, for reasons that remain inexcusably murky.

A fashionable vision in a red Ferrari, Kinski meets Depardieu while searching for her dissolute brother, a longshot rape suspect, at a waterfront dive. Although the beautiful moon-faced stranger begs him, "Take me away . . . far," on very short acquaintance, Depardieu remains inconsolable, a firmly expedient prisoner of gutter associations and regrets. In fact, he's so maddeningly in thrall to despondency that he resists both Kinski, possibly a figment of his imagination, and Victoria Abril, a genuinely impassioned and arousing presence as his hot-blooded but frustrated girlfriend. Kinski emerges as such a swoony joke that you never give her much thought as an alternative to squalor. It's never clear where the hero gets the nerve or willpower to reject a woman as exciting and demanding as Abril's lower-class man trap, since his behavior is tantamount to a sin against nature.

Curiously, Kinski doesn't figure in much of the action; she loiters around decoratively, but her character is vaporous. The story is ultimately contrived--with more viciousness than seems strictly kosher--to sort things out between Depardieu and Abril, and while this line of development isn't adequately prepared for, the movie receives a desperately needed burst of energy each time Abril returns to the scene.

Unfortunately, one seems to wait a drowsy, pretentious eternity for these savory appearances. As a rule, it's impossible to determine what order of depiction, real or fantastic or in-between, Beineix is aiming for in any given scene, and the sequence of events is often laughably puzzling.

When something wildly ludicrous isn't going on, Beineix relapses into picturesque slumber. Perhaps he flattered himself that he was lifting a pulp novel out of the literary gutter and into realms of cinematic exaltation. Talented directors have often kidded themselves on this score. The source material, incidentally, derives from the late David Goodis, the American crime novelist whose books have been adapted several times, most famously by Franc,ois Truffaut in the case of "Shoot the Piano Player." One can even detect a basic thematic similarity through the fancy smog of Beineix's stylization.

At bottom, "Moon in the Gutter" is also about a man whose enduring, guilt-tinged grief over the violent death of a loved one makes him reluctant to seek consolation and renewal in the arms of a willing woman. Beineix's film may now serve as a cautionary disaster, the definitive example of how to turn an exploitable little pretext for romantic melodrama into an elaborate excuse for embarrassment.