Don't look for happy endings in Agnieszka Holland's movies. For the pessimistic Polish filmmaker, the glass is always half empty, although it undoubtedly contains a merlot and rests on a table surrounded by colleagues.

If anyone has a right to cynicism, it's Holland. Her critically acclaimed films have been banned in her homeland, snubbed by Germany's Oscar nominating committee and ignored in her adopted France. Additionally, she's been exiled from Poland, jailed by the Czechs and condemned as an antisemite even though she's half Jewish and faced virulent racism herself.

Her upbringing has certainly shaped the way she looks at people. "I think that anyone's life is not something that should lead you to the optimism," she cracks. "You are born and after, you get older and older and older, and sick and you die and it's nothing optimistic in this story."

It's hardly the typical Hollywood formula, yet Holland has just finished her second American-backed movie, a plush adaptation of the Henry James novella "Washington Square," which she filmed last year in Baltimore's Union Square. She recently returned to the vicinity to promote the movie, which opened Friday in Washington.

Set in 19th-century New York, the story focuses on Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a timid heiress who agrees to marry the dashing Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin). Though it takes all her slim resources, Catherine locks horns with her father (Albert Finney), who threatens to disinherit her if she goes through with the wedding.

Sloper believes that Morris is after the Sloper fortune, because as far as he's concerned, Catherine is without other assets. As he is wont to remind his daughter, she inherited none of her mother's beauty, grace, brains or taste.

"He's unable to see her as valued human being, only as a constant disappointment. Of course if somebody, especially somebody you admire, tells you all the time how stinky you are, you start to stink," observes Holland, who also had a difficult relationship with her father, a prominent Jewish journalist who either fell, jumped or was pushed to his death while in the custody of the secret police.

Holland, who was 13 at the time, was devastated because they had never really bonded. "He was very interesting, very intelligent and in the last years of life he gave me a lot of doors to the art and the film. But he wasn't really interested in the young children and he only noticed me when he wanted to make a kind of show. I was a very intelligent child, articulate and able to tell the stories.

"I remember he would sometimes wake me in the middle of the night just to make the show of me. He would see me when he can sell my value and I hated it. I think deeply I never had the forgiveness for that because it showed that I am not good enough for myself to be loved, that I have to prove that I have something. And that is very much a father concept, I think. And that's also Catherine's father's big problem."

Catherine's ultimate triumph over both the men in her life attracted Holland to the story and to Carol Doyle's screenplay, which captures the ambiguity of the principal characters and has more depth and complexity than William Wyler's "The Heiress." Variety critic Todd McCarthy noted the faithfulness of the adaptation, but cautioned that it was "imbued with something of a feminist twist."

The elfin 49-year-old glowers at the thought of Mr. McCarthy over a spoonful of mushroom consomme. "This guy is completely stupid," she snaps. "He reviewed a couple of my movies and those were the most stupid reviews I have ever had. I don't think it's feminist. I think it's told from a more female point of view than other adaptations.

"James is very ambiguous in his sexuality and his books always reflect the struggle between the female and male in him. In Washington Square,' it is obvious that Catherine is very different than his narration, which is very sardonic, very critical, very dry. But Catherine has inner beauty and pureness, which probably surprised James himself. Maybe it's why he didn't like this novel," she theorizes. "He loves the control of his characters -- and she cannot be controlled. This sometimes happens to a writer, especially to man writers with the women characters. It happened also to Tolstoy in Anna Karenina.' "

"Washington Square" is about money, she continues. "Money's a very male concept. And the guys, both the father and Morris, are about money and about the power. What is important for the father is to have the authority over her. What is important for Morris is to have her money. She's not about the money at all. Her values are about feelings, truthfulness and integrity. From that view, it is a feminist story."

Men, she notes, can share these values. Indeed, feelings are in vogue. "We are returning to a period of romanticism. Feelings, spirituality, mystery of life are overwhelming these peculiar, very rational values of the man's society. It was pretty obvious in this hysteria after Princess Diana's death. She represented all the female values with their weaknesses also. But the world she was put in, it was about the conventions, the power, the money. And suddenly after her death, we've seen society completely embraced and idealized these values.

"The telecast of Diana's funeral showed hundreds of young men on the streets crying. I remember when I read the great Polish and German Romantic poets, these guys cried all the time. I remember the description: I wake up and the sun was so beautiful that I cried for half of hour.' We are coming back to that in some way. And I think personally that the women will lead the world in the next millennium, at least the next century."

Not that Holland believes that women will be any better at it than the men were.

Catherine's dotty aunt (Maggie Smith), for example, is "Washington Square's" true antagonist and in the director's view represents the ultimate threat to the survival of the species. "She's not bad, but she's aggressively stupid," Holland says, "and I really believe that the villain in this world is aggressive stupidity."

Her 1993 children's film, "The Secret Garden," provided a respite from her long battle against it. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, her adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved novel was a "kind of gift for the people to let them feel better because I needed to feel better also. I had made a couple of very depressing movies. Everything was so bleak and hopeless that if I made another movie like that I would jump from the window."

Holland fell in love with the novel when she and her younger sister were growing up in a drab Warsaw flat during the Stalinist era. Their mother, a Catholic journalist and a veteran of the anti-Nazi underground, scavenged a used copy of the novel, thereby introducing her children to the world of English country houses and rose gardens.

When the movie became a hit, Holland began to have second thoughts about her work. "I am very anxious if everybody would like my movies. I don't like everybody -- how can everybody like me?" As a half-Jewish schoolgirl, she learned there is no way of winning some people over. Antisemitism was a part of daily life in Poland, where she was taunted by her classmates in grade school and, as a teen, turned away from film school. Instead she attended the famed Prague Film Academy, where like her parents she became a dissident journalist.

At 21, she went to jail for six weeks for her work with the underground press. The prison was coed and Holland's cell was between those of two inmates who had fallen in love. It became her job to pass erotic notes from one to the other. "It was like phone sex and I was the cable," she remembers.

It was a turning point. Holland realized she'd rather be an artist than an agitator. So after her release, she returned to Poland and wrote her first screenplay. It was censored but eventually came to the attention of Poland's premier director at the time, Andrzej Wajda, who subsequently became her mentor.

Although she wrote more scripts and made several features under his auspices, the government continued to ban her work. "It was normal, you know. A lot of my friends had their movies banned. We thought that our duty was to push, to make the space for the freedom. And finally we won. Now, these people don't know how to use this freedom."

She reminds her countrymen of this every time she goes back home. She's a celebrity now and can chide the Polish people as she pleases. "If I live there they will eat me, you know. But because I am coming as a beloved visitor, it goes well."

Before European communism crumbled, however, she was exiled for speaking out against the declaration of martial law in Poland. In 1981 she moved to Paris, where she was finally reunited with her daughter, Kasia, eight months later. She and her husband, director Laco Adamik, had already separated, but remain married and occasionally visit. "It is a sentimental link," she explains.

Holland then wrote and directed "Angry Harvest," a German and French production about a Polish Catholic farmer who rescues a Jewish woman from the Nazi killing machine. In 1986 it was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar by the Germans, who failed to similarly honor her most acclaimed film, 1991's "Europa, Europa."

Written and directed by Holland, the movie tells the true story of Solomon Perel, a Jewish teenager who escaped the Nazis by pretending to be one. The biography, at once darkly comic and horrific, put Holland on the map, and with 1992's "Olivier, Olivier," she established her knack for working with children.

"Olivier, Olivier," the disturbing story of a child's disappearance and apparent return, did solid business in American art houses, but went belly up in France almost immediately. Holland shrugs. It's old news, the least of her problems. Besides, something even more ghastly -- Armageddon, perhaps -- is undoubtedly just around the corner.

No wonder she likes Woody Allen.

"I really dream about directing the comedy but the problem is to find a script which is not stupid," Holland says. "I read two or three scripts I really liked, but every time the studio had the cold feet. Mostly when it's a script I think is really good, the studio decides not to do it because it's not safe enough, and I like the things which I have not seen already 50 times, I like something which has the surprise and the originality -- and that's exactly the concept they don't accept.

"The comedies which are successful here," she adds, "are just for me the example of such a dangerous stupidity and are so disgusting to me that I cannot imagine how I can do the movie for this audience. It's not the slapstick like Dumb and Dumber.' I like watching Jim Carrey. It doesn't bother me. It doesn't pretend that it's a comedy of manners while, for example, First Wives' Club' pretends that, yes. This movie is really awful to me. It's offensive to human intelligence. It's voolgar, it's stupid. It makes fun of the things you cannot make fun and then takes seriously the things which are disgusting. It's like the worst German comedy: I will fall down, but you will fall with a bigger bump."

She feels very connected with Jewish humor, because it comes from Eastern Europe. "I would be happiest in the world if I can once do something like Woody Allen, Billy Wilder or {Ernst} Lubitsch," confides Holland, who injects a bit of physical comedy into "Washington Square."

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Catherine as quite the klutz when Morris first begins to pursue her. Holland explains, "I saw that she is ridiculous and pathetic in the beginning of the story, and I wanted to build the base to show how great and dramatic her change was. During the story, I pull my camera closer and closer and closer, till we are so close to Catherine that we have impression that we are going inside of her."

Catherine doesn't get her man, but she finds out who she is. And that's what's more important in the end.

At least it is if you're Agnieszka Holland, who has only just discovered another truth about herself: "I kind of like living in L.A., which surprises myself. There are only three things to do: go to movies, drive and shop. That's why I am not wearing black, you see. Suddenly in my forties I am the beeg shopper."

Next thing you know she'll be popping Prozac. CAPTION: Agnieszka Holland at ease, right; directing "Washington Square" on location, above; and discussing a scene with the film's star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, left.