THERE'S no such thing as an unanimous opinion at the Cannes Film Festival, or at any filmfest I've ever heard of. Just when you think you've seen the worst movie of all time, along comes someone who's convinced that it's a gem - and who also has a dismayingly cogent argument to prove that your favorite masterpiece is a piece of junk.
Critics thrive on such debates, and one of the reasons festivals give prizes is to cut through this contention and take an unambiguous stand on the year's best achievements - even if the main result is to stir up yet another round of argument focusing on the awards and the experts who bestowed them.
Yet the jury at the just-concluded Cannes festival seemed as indecisive as anyone who attended the event. Instead of boldly declaring one winner for the grand prize, it split the coveted Golden Palm between two movies - and handed out a special Jury Prize to two more, as well as a Grand Jury Prize to still another film. It's as if five movies walked off with an Oscar for best picture.
In principle, there's nothing wrong with this outcome. Juries inevitably must choose between celluloid apples and oranges, and recognize a wide range of worthy achievement is a valid way of minimizing the contradictions built into this process.
Complicating the situation at Cannes was the varied nature of this year's jury, which ranged from Italian actress Claudia Cardinale and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami to French cinematographer William Lubtchansky and American producer Tom Luddy, among others. After the awards ceremony, I spoke with filmmaker Louis Malle, who presided over the jury, and he used the word "bizarre" to describe its extreme diversity. He also stressed the friendliness of their deliberations, though, and seemed generally p leased with the result of their labor.
Most critics and film-industry members seemed content, as well, especially with the two Golden Palms winners: "The Piano," by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, and "Farewell to My Concubine," by Chinese director Chen Kaige, both among the festival's most widely popular offerings. In honoring them together, the jury recognized the great cultural and geographical variety of today's cinema - and broke new ground by awarding the Golden Palm to a woman filmmaker and a Chinese filmmaker for the first time.
Made on a modest budget with an international cast, "The Piano" tells the story of a 19th-century woman who never speaks but expresses her thoughts in sign language and music. When she enters an arranged marriage with a rural landowner, her beloved piano falls into the hands of an illiterate neighbor, who subjects her to sexual blackmail until the two of them recognize each other's higher qualities and fall in love.
The film has a broad emotional range, with surprisingly explicit lovemaking scenes as well as subtly expressive images of sea, sky, and forest. Holly Hunter won the Cannes award for best female performance.
"Farewell to My Concubine" is a sweeping look at modern Chinese history, viewed through the experiences of two opera stars. Set early in this century, the brilliant first hour shows the harsh training of children who hope to become opera performers, and suggests that the authoritarianism of Chinese communism has roots in much older traditions. The third hour is similarly vivid, showing the brutality of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
While these portions of the movie use personal and cultural affairs to approach political problems, the middle hour lapses into the merely personal - a melodramatic love triangle - and forms a regrettably weak bridge between the more effective episodes. The movie as a whole is very imposing, however, and is positively riveting at its best.
Also laudable are both of the Jury Prize winners. "The Puppetmaster," by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, recounts the true story of a renowned puppeteer during the decades when Taiwan was under Japanese occupation. Bathed in Mr. Hou's rigorous visual style - with characters moving eloquently through long, immaculately composed shots - this delicate drama also has a glowing emotional resonance that Hou's recent work has lacked.
More feisty but equally moving is "Raining Stones," by British director Ken Loach, who pursues his usual social and political interests through the unpredictable story of a jobless man's determination to buy his little daughter a new dress. It's funny, touching, and thoughtful.
With so many first-rate movies to honor, it's amazing that the Cannes jurors didn't quit while they were ahead. But they proceeded to bestow a Grand Jury Prize on "Faraway, So Close!" by German director Wim Wenders, a movie that few outside the jury wanted to praise. Made as a follow-up to Mr. Wender's popular "Wings of Desire," about an angel who loves humans so much that he becomes one, the new picture is wildly uneven and much, much too long.
Far more respected was British filmmaker Mike Leigh's new picture, "Naked," a ferocious look at contemporary European social problems. It earned the best-director prize for Mr. Leigh and a richly deserved best-actor award for David Thewlis, whose explosive performance was the talk of Cannes.
NOW that the hoopla has subsided and the prizewinners are polishing their trophies, will the awards earned here translate into box-office windfalls worldwide?
It is generally agreed that a prize at Cannes is good for a burst of respect from the critics, a burst of envy from the industry, and a burst of attention from the international press - followed by a general apathy from most everyday moviegoers, who are more interested in opening-day newspaper and television reviews than in exotic awards bestowed by heterogeneous juries at faraway festivals.
All the top prizewinners are certain to arrive soon on theatrical screens in the United States and elsewhere, from a probable hit like "The Piano" to a sure-fire bomb like "Faraway, So Close!" and harder-to-predict offerings like the Asian and British pictures.
The fortunes of these movies are now in the hands of the filmgoing public - the ultimate jury, and the one filmmakers care the most about.