NEW YORK — IN most ways, "Liebestraum" is a stylish but routine thriller about sex and murder in a small town - a formula movie with little ambition besides recapping a lot of Hollywood's favorite "film noir" gimmicks.The picture is noteworthy in one major respect, though: It brings Kim Novak back to the wide screen after a long absence. She was never the most skilled actress in Hollywood, but she once had an almost magical allure, and there's nothing quite like her performances in '50s movies like "Picnic" and "Bell, Book, and Candle," not to mention Alfred Hitchcock's unforgettable "Vertigo," one of the greatest American films ever made. It's surprising Ms. Novak would choose "Liebestraum" for her first theatrical movie in years, since her role doesn't offer the slightest opportunity to display the beauty and magnetism that were among her trademarks at the peak of her career. She plays an old woman with a severe illness that confines her to bed, prevents her from talking much of the time, and makes her gasp rather than speak the occasional lines the screenplay does give her. It's well known that every actress and actor loves a good death scene, of course, since it's great for grabbing attention and practicing the most exotic acting tricks. "Liebestraum" is nothing but a death scene for Novak, however - although she certainly does a good job with it, showing that her performing technique is sharper than ever. The other characters in "Liebestraum" are the old woman's son, an architect who comes to visit his mother in her last days; and a beautiful young woman he's attracted to, even though she's married to an old friend of his. Played with little spark by Kevin Anderson and Pamela Gidley, they get involved in a mystery that brings together past and present, memory and reality, even color and black-and-white photography - very much like "Dead Again," the new Kenneth Branagh thriller that has a lot of similariti es to "Liebestraum," right down to a thunderstorm in the opening scene. "Liebestraum" is darker than "Dead Again," though, and has a lot more sex. It's the kind of movie where brilliant architects look like models; where frustrated homemakers read books by the brilliant architects and moon over their dust-jacket photos; and where everyone has a nasty secret. The title comes from a piano piece by Franz Liszt that will strike a chord with anyone who took lessons. It plays a bit part, trying to give the film a little more class than the usual imitation film noir, and pointing t o the use of hands as a visual and narrative motif. "Liebestraum" was written and directed by Mike Figgis, a neo-noir specialist whose earlier credits include "Stormy Monday" and "Internal Affairs," plus some British stage and TV work. The action has moments of real suspense, and the cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia looks impressive in a lurid-postcard sort of way. But in the end, the picture is pointless - enough to send Kim Novak back to the TV screen and Franz Liszt back to the concert hall, where both will probably be much better served
The film is rated * for sensuality and language.