Ledges and stony precipices are always tempting the characters in Marco Bellocchio's films, and in his new movie, "Devil in the Flesh," the vortex beckons -- seductively.

Its symbol is a young woman, Giulia (Maruschka Detmers), who casts her spell on an impressionable young student, Andre'a (Federico Pitzalis). The boy, whose father, a psychiatrist, has previously treated Giulia, meets her one day in the courtroom where her fiance', Giacomo (Riccardo De Torrebruna), is on trial for terrorist crimes. The affair blossoms quickly, and soon Giulia is happily giggling. But there's something wrong with that giggle: It's a low, gurgling, convulsive laugh -- a laugh flooded with eros and lunacy.

In Bellocchio's films, delirium is always raging into being, smashing up the good china. He's marked madness off as his special territory, and in movies like "Fists in the Pocket" and "Leap Into the Void" it's proven to be provocative, unsettling ground. And, based on the classic French novel by Raymond Radiguet, the movie is an opportunity for Bellocchio to swing by the old neighborhood of other familiar themes -- women, family, politics -- as well. But his treatment of them here isn't very compelling. In fact, it's about as simple-minded an exploration of his material as you're likely to see from a gifted director.

Bellocchio builds his movie on a series of poetic associations: on the image of the courtyard at the beginning (itself a symbol of the inviting abyss), the wedding rings that Giulia and Giacomo examine, Giulia's red bathrobe the full moon.

The director, who worked on the script with Enrico Palandri and Ennio De Concini, with some assistance from the renegade Italian psychiatrist Massimo Fagioli (to whom the film is dedicated), constructs the relationships between his characters dialectically. The former terrorist, Giacomo, now longs only for conformity, a kind of supernormality. Giulia is his opposite, a force of passion and irrationality. Sex is defense against his longing for blandness and conventionality. And it's her weapon too.

For Giulia, sex is her source of power, and her connection with chaos. In the film's most sensationalist scene, Giulia tries to coax Andre'a into lingering with her in their bed, resorting to fellatio (performed as Andre'a recounts the tale of Lenin's return to St. Petersburg). But Andre'a, though he is in love, refuses to be swept away by Giulia's crazy passion.

Andre'a, who's able to resist the pull of Giulia's sexual undertow enough to complete his exams, is the film's rational center, its eye of normality. And, in the role, Pitzalis is only routinely engaging. He's fine, but a little vapid.

As Giulia, Detmers, with her flying auburn hair and searching hazel eyes, can communicate carnality -- she has some of the same animal vitality that Maria Schneider had in "Last Tango in Paris" -- but she's not able to convey the tides that wear away at the foundations of her sanity.

But for Bellocchio, carnality and insanity are the same thing. Ultimately, the movie becomes a not-so-veiled broadside against women and their destabilizing powers. Love, too, is a kind of hysteria, Bellocchio tells us, and woman the mythical, hysterical other -- the enticing, voluptuous void. -- Hal Hinson Devil in the Flesh, at the K-B Janus, is rated X and contains explicit sexual material.

'Shadey'

"Shadey," an off-putting exploration of sex roles, takes "Tootsie" to extremes when a British paranormal becomes a transsexual after an accidental castration in a client's kitchen sink. Afterward, the psychic, who records thoughts on film via a camera tied to his head, gets even clearer images. It's women's intuition the hard way.

Antony Sher, noted for his performances in the London production of "Torch Song Trilogy" and the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Richard III," plays the extrasensory Shadey with a cuddly charisma that turns to haughty assertiveness with his loss of manhood. Fortunately, Shadey had always wanted to be a woman anyway and was saving his salary for a sex change operation.

Shadey sells his services to the unscrupulous Sir Cyril (Patrick Macnee), who then sells them to paranormal psychologist Dr. Cloud (Billie Whitelaw). She proves a heartless, gender-bent woman inclined to severe suits, who exploits him for military espionage. Fearing that he will lose his powers, she denies him his longed-for operation. But fate -- or is it something even more mysterious? -- intervenes.

Lots of creepy, high-pitched music, like sirens being pinched, tells us we're in the presence of something positively Spielbergian. And the cinematography, the kind that creeps around from the corner of your eye and up from behind, leads us to believe we're involved with supernatural goings-on. But it's more as if ALF (TV's midget alien) had decided to take up cinematography for real.

Philip Saville, who directed Macnee in "The Avengers," fails to turn this bleak tale into the black comedy it's meant to be. He gives "Shadey" a methodical pace and fills it with dark lights and heavy, unimaginative performances. Macnee, jowls practically tucked into his collar, looks grotesque as Sir Cyril wallowing on his daughter (lithe Leslie Ash) in one of Shadey's thought films.

Incest, a cotheme, has already turned the father-molested Mrs. Sir Cyril into a coal-eating maniac and finally the original castrating mother. Katherine Helmond, the mother in "Brazil," plays this agoraphobic nut case broadly and ghoulishly.

There are so many fun folks to keep up with in this story of hormonal surrealism written by British playwright Snoo (a man's name) Wilson. He's crowded his black comedy with creeps and cluttered his story line with their icky practices. And that leaves the appealing Sher in estrogen never-never land. -- Rita Kempley Shadey, at the Key, is rated PG-13, and contains kinky stuff.