THE first American retrospective of Alain Robbe-Grillet's films, held recently at Anthology Film Archives here, opened with a rare screening of ``Last Year at Marienbad,'' one of the most influential European movies of the past 30 years. Seeing it again was a vivid reminder of how stylishly Mr. Robbe-Grillet entered the cinema world in 1961. He was already known as one of Europe's most important postwar novelists. And although ``Marienbad'' was directed by another rising French cin'easte, Alain Resnais, its screenplay made a profound impression on moviegoers in many countries, who recognized the same qualities that made Robbe-Grillet's books distinctive: carefully sculptured language, a labyrinthine plot, and - replacing the psychology that shapes ordinary novels and films - a fascination with the ever-enigmatic surfaces of people, places, and things.
Even as ``Marienbad'' was being made, Robbe-Grillet began a directorial career of his own - shooting a movie called ``L'Immortelle,'' which dealt, like ``Marienbad,'' with a man chasing a woman who resists him. He has written and directed seven films since then, all quite ``cinematic'' in their preference for pictures over words. ``I don't like writing things for people [on the screen] to say,'' he told me recently. ``I prefer images.''
Yet he is still known mostly as a man of words rather than a filmmaker.
Why is this so? The answer emerged during Anthology's valuable retrospective. Quite simply, Robbe-Grillet's films often lack the spareness of style, purity of conception, and rigorous execution that mark his best novels.
His movies have dubious preoccupations, moreover, that displace the tantalizing mystery and discipline of such remarkable literary feats as ``The Erasers'' and ``In the Labyrinth.''
In the world of books, Robbe-Grillet is celebrating as a pioneer of the ``new novel,'' a type of narrative based entirely on precise description.
When he first turned to film in ``Last Year at Marienbad,'' it appeared that Robbe-Grillet would keep searching for truth in a visually defined realm beyond the boundaries of mere psychology. His next film, ``L'Immortelle,'' marked another strong effort in this direction, even though its images had less resonance. In both these movies, and in ``The Man Who Lies,'' images seem to motivate the story - rather than the other (and usual) way around. They remain provocative films today.
IN the early 1970s, though, Robbe-Grillet became increasingly fascinated with sexual perversity.
In such pictures as ``Progressive Slidings of Pleasure'' and the twin films called ``Eden and After'' and ``N Took the Dice,'' he shamelessly turns women into sex objects surrounded by situations of soft-core sadomasochism. This reaches its nadir in ``Playing With Fire,'' a static wide-screen exercise that badly misuses its talented cast. It's no surprise that audiences outside certain European intellectual circles have shown little interest in such stuff.
Fortunately, things may be improving. Robbe-Grillet's latest movie, ``La Belle captive,'' plays down sexist and dehumanizing aspects, and gains added depth from Henri Alekan's exquisite cinematography. Like the early ``Trans-Europe Express,'' it also has a sense of humor in its story of a bizarre conspiracy that may or may not exist.
For years, Robbe-Grillet has managed to continue his filmmaking despite its lukewarn reception by many critics, and even to enlist such international stars as Jean-Louis Trintignant (a frequent collaborator) and Philippe Noiret in his enterprises. Only his earliest and latest works show his cinematic talent to be as genuine as his literary ability, however.
One hopes his future movies continue his latest trend, instead of sliding into the obsessive mud of his other films.