"SHEER MADNESS" sounds like it's about a madcap cocktail party with Jean Arthur and David Niven or what happens when you daub on the right perfume. But it's a moody, broody, feminist film, though not of the truckdriver school.

Director-writer Margarethe von Trotta crafts this disturbing, deeply moving import, with Hanna Schygulla and Angela Winkler brilliant in complex costarring roles. Glimpses, glances and furtive gestures are the stuff of von Trotta's fine and subtle "Madness." Originally titled "Heller Wahn," it is a darkly neurotic, Germanic version of "Entre Nous."

It observes the short-lived friendship of strikingly different heroines -- Schygulla as a crisp and confident professor of women's literature, and Winkler as an agoraphobic artist whose dependence has become the mainstay of her relationship with her husband Franz.

Von Trotta gives a sympathetic eye to the cobweb of dependencies that develop between women and women, and women and men -- the jealousies, intrusions, terrors and fears -- though hers is a bleak and inconclusive view.

Schygulla, as sensual as Garbo, as precise as Streep, is mesmerizing as Olga, a nurturer who likes to save people from themselves. And Winkler, with her deep black eyes, is profoundly and sadly eloquent as the timorous Ruth, afraid even to answer the phone till Olga offers a hand.

Ruth paints the Old Masters in black and white, the colors of her fantasies and dreams, photographed here with a colorlessness that allows von Trotta to waffle on a final confrontation between Ruth and Franz.

Peter Striebeck is heartfelt in this difficult role as a husband who comes to realize that he needs his wife's dependence as much as she needs her freedom. He's a successful academic and lecturer, a part of this soothing, seductive academic community that is the quiet background for the explosive story.

"You fear war," says Ruth. "I fear people. What's the difference?"

Franz, who first encourages the relationship, becomes jealous of it, finally tearing it up as easily as a hangnail runs nylons. Ruth is drawn back into her empty world and Olga is forced to confront her own failing relationships with husband, son and lover, all of whom resent their dependence on her strength.

"Sheer Madness" is a women's deliberation on the sexual revolution that has come full circle, a murky yet illuminating examination of human bondage.

SHEER MADNESS (Unrated) -- In German with subtitles at the Key.