"Did you cry?" Henry Jaglom wants to know. "You didn't cry at all?" He is slightly disappointed.

He is learning to classify people by the way they respond to his latest exercise in personal filmmaking, "Always," a movie about love, divorce and self-obsession around the swimming pool. Single and divorced women cry. Married people find it funny. Most men are too emotionally armored to cry, except for Jaglom himself, who wrote and directed "Always," and who sometimes laughs when he watches it and sometimes weeps miserably.

Which is understandable. In "Always," which opens in Washington Friday, the mournful ex-husband talking into the camera about how happy he used to be is Jaglom. The "set" -- a peach-walled Hollywood bungalow in the shadow of the Chateau Marmont -- is the house he shared with his wife, where he now lives alone. The woman standing in the doorway and tearfully announcing her departure is Jaglom's ex, actress Patrice Townsend. "I don't think I can live with you anymore," she says, precisely as she said it four years ago, coming home from her yoga class to torpedo their seven-year relationship. Also among the cast: Townsend's father (playing her father), Jaglom's brother (playing his brother) and the couple's best friends (playing their best friends). This is about as verite' as cinema gets.

"That's why we were so perfectly suited," Jaglom says ruefully, stationed at his power table at the Russian Tea Room where he is ordering chicken soup. "We're both exhibitionists emotionally."

He is 43, a New Yorker who after years in California has lost his tolerance for winter and wears a hat, muffler and overcoat to lunch on a mild January afternoon. He wants to know how long his companion at lunch has been married and how happily. He, in turn, is more than willing to talk intimately about himself. He does not put much stock in the stiff upper lip.

In fact, a considerable proportion of the creative population of both coasts probably knew that Henry Jaglom was having a hard time coping with separation and divorce. "I thought my life was over," he remembers. "I walked up and down the streets of New York crying and talking to myself. I thought I'd be in an unending pit of pain." Back in Los Angeles, raging against his fate, "I would cry and bang the floor. I was reduced to a screaming, hysterical baby." Townsend had to come over to comfort him. Women friends held his hand. Men friends -- Jaglom despairs of the emotional development of the American male -- recommended casual sex. Instead Jaglom, who acknowledges that his films have always been "Rorschach drawings of my emotional condition," made a movie.

He made two, actually. "Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?," released in 1983, featured Karen Black walking the streets of New York, crying and talking to herself about the collapse of her marriage. But Jaglom found it "not fully satisfying" to have "other people act my story." So he decided that next time, he and Townsend should do it themselves. "To be honest, that's why. Anything else would be indirect."

"Always" is not precisely a documentary: It unfolds during an impromptu Fourth of July weekend house party that never actually took place. Jaglom and Townsend, called David and Judy in the movie, didn't have a ceremonial divorce dinner at which they signed their decree. But, Jaglom says, "at different times, everything she and I say to each other in the movie, we have said to each other."

And so, for months, Jaglom awoke in his solitary house, had breakfast and waited for Townsend to arrive for the day's shooting. Their conversations, part scripted, part improvised, were circular and personal. They talked, for the camera, about why she had left and whether they were happy. "It was like being married again," he says. "Then my actors and my crew and my ex-wife would leave and I was alone again. It was very weird."

Townsend confirms by phone from California, where she and her second husband (a yoga instructor) are expecting a child, that she was an enthusiastic participant in the project. "At worst, it could be dull," she remembers thinking. "At best, it could be great. He and I would find out some things about this. I was still not sure at the time why I left. I never thought anybody else would go see it, but that didn't matter at the time."

Though she's critical of the character she plays, finding her "really rather lost," Townsend, 33, says Jaglom "really did capture the way it was . . . I wasn't satisfied with my character but at the time I wasn't satisfied with myself."

As for Jaglom, who's savored his chicken soup and moved on to a club sandwich, he was surprised to find that the movie he thought would have a rather narrow audience had six bidders all anxious to pay more than a million dollars to distribute it -- big bucks for an independent filmmaker. He's gotten (and turned down) lucrative offers from major studios that want him to direct. "Always," which has been playing for four months in L.A. (where the Los Angeles Times pronounced it "a sweet film, and a human one"), opened in New York last month with a pat on the head from Vincent Canby in The New York Times and opens on Valentine's Day in San Francisco, St. Louis and Boston as well as Washington. Like all four of his previous movies it will make money, but unlike them it bids fair to be a hit.

So why is this man still getting teary-eyed at interviews? "Normally, you go through a sadness and slowly it becomes less and less vivid, the images grow vaguer. It's more distant," Jaglom says. "What I did is, for the rest of my life I have to watch my wife love me, we dance together, make love, wake up and go to sleep together, and then she leaves. There's no way of dulling those images; they're almost more precisely focused than they were in life. I'm never gonna lose that moment."

There is a pause over the sandwich as Jaglom -- who even as a 12-year-old walking in Central Park was conscious of imaginary cameras filming the scenes of his life, and who has kept a journal for 20 years -- wonders whether he did this on purpose. "This way I hold onto it, forever," he muses. "I have her forever . . .

"It's an endless provocation of my insides," he concludes. "But I do that in life."

Because "Always" is, as its auteur cheerfully acknowledges, deeply self-involved, he expects "a certain amount of East Coast flak." The Townsend character goes on and on about her search for happiness ("maybe I want too much"), which seems to require, among other things, lots of vitamins. The real Townsend, Jaglom says in her defense, "is as deeply thoughtful and bright a person as I've ever met. But preoccupied, overwhelmed, with trying to feel good . . . I'm preoccupied with something else, trying to have relationships with people who are preoccupied."

Both are part of "a fortunate group who tend not to have too-critical worries about food and clothing, who can indulge ourselves in worrying about 'Are we happy?' 'Are we unhappy?' 'Are we as happy as our parents were?' 'Maybe they weren't happy.' All that kind of stuff." Worried about a resulting lack of perspective, Jaglom wrote director Andre Gregory (as in "My Dinner With . . . ") into a party scene and had him observe that in past generations people were too busy tilling fields for such "endless emotional temperature-taking."

But Jaglom is still at it. All his movies have been about his obsession with the search for love, he says, and so is the one he's currently editing. Called "Valentine," it takes place in an empty theater where Jaglom, playing a filmmaker "who is very unhappy at finding himself alone at this stage in life" and is frustrated by "the antiromanticism of the day," invites some friends (played by his friends) to a Valentine's Day party. The price of admission, as it were, is that the guests talk to a camera about why they are alone, and whether life has turned out as they'd planned. During this exercise, Orson Welles (another of Jaglom's friends, making what turned out to be his final appearance in a movie) shows up "to basically tell me that what I'm doing is absurd," says Jaglom. "That man has always been alone, that only love and friendship can create the illusion, for a moment, that we're not."

Henry Jaglom, it is comforting to remember, has managed despite his disillusionment with life's lack of happy endings to become a quite successful independent filmmaker. He has European financial backing for movies six through 10 already lined up (his first film, "A Safe Place," died after a few weeks here but ran in one Paris theater for seven years).

He plans to make two films a year, to be "Fassbinder without drugs" and to keep complete creative control. "I never understand filmmakers letting other people edit their films," he says. "I really write in the editing room. It's like painting a painting. I can't imagine painting on deadline: 'This sky's gotta be blue by tomorrow.' "

Because each of his movies to date has been made for less than a million dollars, each has turned a profit. Given videocassettes and cable television, Jaglom says, "If you're not greedy, you can't fail to make your money back . . . If you're willing to accept the idea that film doesn't have to be a mass medium. I'm not looking to make a film for every 14-year-old in Iowa, or every 14-year-old mind."

Still, however confidently Jaglom talks about a career any NYU film student would murder to arrange, it is clearly not the Meaning of Life. If only love were equally subject to complete creative control.

Jaglom is keeping company, as he puts it, with actress and singer Andrea Marcovicci , one of the friends he turned to for solace while trying to survive separation from Townsend. They have, he says, "a special loving friendship that's hard to define in conventional terms. But it's different from the dream of romance" that he somehow acquired from watching too many Astaire and Rogers movies. "Patrice was the dream of romance.

"Maybe it's a false dream," he continues, half to himself. "We don't even know how to define our relationship." And while it may be "more grown-up, less dreamy" to have this undefinable liaison, it's not what Fred and Ginger had. Nor is it clear that Jaglom and Marcovicci can live happily ever after. He wants to have children, but she "has a whole different agenda."

"Who knows?" Jaglom shrugs, baffled but still game. "I can't figure it out. You just have to keep going."