Surrealism has never been a common film style. This is partly because the camera is a literal instrument, and most directors tend to use it in a literal way, avoiding the ''more than real'' even when treating fantastic subject matter. There's a great gulf between Dali's canvases and the ''Star Wars'' saga.
Another factor is the lack of a surrealist-cinema tradition that might nurture and guide aspiring filmmakers. Only a couple of classic directors have plunged wholeheartedly into surrealism: Jean Cocteau in such highly personalized works as ''Orpheus'' and ''Blood of a Poet,'' and Luis Bunuel in 50 years of brilliant cinema.
Still, some young moviemakers find their way to a surrealist outlook and explore it profitably. One is Martin Brest in his unforgettable debut film, ''Hot Tomorrows.'' Another is David Lynch in the uncompromising ''Eraserhead'' and later, to a surprising extent, in the darkly poetic interludes of ''The Elephant Man.'' (His upcoming ''Dune'' promises more of the same, judging from advance reports of the production.)
Just now, in more a coincidence than a trend, two current releases breathe something of the surrealist spirit: ''Le Dernier Combat,'' a futuristic thriller from France, and ''Erendira,'' a torrid romance with French as well as Mexican and West German credentials.
''Le Dernier Combat,'' also known as ''The Last Battle,'' was directed and co-written by Luc Besson, a new talent still in his mid-20s. The story takes place amid the rubble of a blasted-out future world, in which humans can no longer speak and violence dominates all. The characters have no names, only labels - the Man, the Captain, the Brute - and their conflicts rage over such fundamental articles as automobile parts and canteens of water.
Shot in wide-screen black and white, the wordless action made me think of some unfortunate pantomime troupe slogging through the science-fiction wilderness of ''The Road Warrior.'' The effect is stilted and studied at first, and the lack of dialogue seems arbitrary. The story gathers a grim momentum as it goes along, with its archetypal characters and weird visual tropes. But the director's most surreal touches - a cloudburst with fish instead of raindrops, for example - struck me as rather forced. The film's barbaric attitude toward women and sex doesn't help, either.
''Erendira'' was directed by Brazilian filmmaker Ruy Guerra from a screenplay by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, based on a brief fragment of his long novel ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' The title character is a 14 -year-old girl who accidentally burns down her grandmother's house. The old miser (stormily played by Irene Papas) then forces her into prostitution, at which she is sadly successful before finding a boyfriend and taking revenge on Grandma.
The sometimes ghastly subject matter of ''Erendira'' is mitigated by Guerra's directing style, which is as florid as it is dreamlike. The movie's countless visual flourishes come as a surprise, since Garcia Marquez's novel - while equally surreal - has a direct, no-nonsense narrative thrust that cuts cleanly through the bizarre twists of story and character. Garcia Marquez, like Kafka before him, knows how to heighten a dream (or a nightmare) by unfolding it with relentless lucidity. In his rush to dazzle our eyes, filmmaker Guerra takes the opposite tack, overstuffing his movie with artifices and effects. The result is more tiring than tantalizing.