This year's Cannes Film Festival got off to a slow start with France's own embarrassing opener, "The Big Blue." Director Luc Besson had insisted on keeping the big-budget film "the great mystery of the festival," not letting anyone see it before opening night. He would have done better not letting anyone see it at all.

The "great mystery" to those booing and whistling in the audience is why he had bothered to make the thing in the first place. An over-blown and overlong film about deep-sea diving in which the dolphins easily out-acted Rosanna Arquette, it turns out to be based on a childhood fascination of the director. Besson evidently failed to consider that few viewers are going to share his obsession - and even some of those may wish he'd also considered a worthwhile script.It's often true at Cannes that when the weather is good, the films are, too - and when it's drizzly and gray, the films seem to be as dismal as the skies. This year, despite a day or two of rain, the weather was at least warmer than the films. In fact, if one word could be picked to epitomize the general tone of the major films in competition, it would probably be "cold."

Many of the films were "big" films: big budgets, huge casts, massive panoramic sets. Several ran for 2 1/2 to 3 hours; and some, we're told, were even 12 or 14 years in the making.

But there was a coldness, a sterility about them that made one wonder if all the good intentions and noble aspirations hadn't helped put the touch of death on these moribund projects.

Spontaneity and heart were often lacking. Why, one wonders, would anyone decide to remake Werner Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God"? Barely 15 years old itself, the film is one of the most quirky and original films of the last decade. Yet here it is - "Aguirre" revisited in the form of "El Dorado." And though it's certainly a visually gorgeous spectacle, it's as conventional as "Aguirre" was unique.

Many of the films plodded along - notably Portugal's "The Cannibals," a contemporary opera which, at only 1 1/2 hours, seemed as long as Max Ophuls' new 4 1/2 hour documentary on "The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie." Equally leaden was West Germany's "Welcome to Germany," a film within a film within a film, with Tony Curtis playing a movie director, himself a survivor of a WWII prison camp, returning to exorcise old guilts.

Belgium's "The Abyss," if not abysmal, was nevertheless weighted by a poor script so solemn and noble it sabotaged itself. And even Paul Schrader's "Patty," about Patty Hearst, one of three U.S. entries, was more admirable and informative than riveting. (atasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, nevertheless commendably manages an American accent and even looks considerably like the kidnapped heiress-terrorist.)

New Zealand's "The Navigator" had much going for it, a science-fiction odyssey that takes its 9-year-old hero from 14th century Cumbria to 20th century Auckland. It tries hard to combine art and box office suspense, but, gets lost somewhere in between.

Japan's "Onimaru," too, left audiences with mixed feelings: Do we vigorously applaud the artistic attempt to translate Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" to medieval Japan, or do we sit back and cringe when a severed arm and hand fly across the screen still attached to the quivering sword it holds? And Margarethe von Trottas transferal of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" to 1970's Italy sounds more intriguing than it actually is, the result looking more like soap opera than significant comedy-drama.

Great Britain's entries, as usual, demanded a certain reverence even before they went on the screen. But the admiration pales when "Pascali's Island," despite Ben Kingsley, drifts languorously and "Drowning by Numbers," despite Joan Plowright, intrigues but never quite makes any sense.

Well-liked by most was Chris Menges' "A World Apart," set in 1960s South Africa. But again one wonders if it isn't the subject matter that demands our respect more than this particular cinematic treatment.

Still, given the languid and plodding films surrounding it, "A World Apart" stood out enough to garner the jury's Special Grand Prix, and the three female leads (odi May, Linda Mvusi, and Barbara Hershey) also shared Best Actress honors - a real feather in Barbara Hershey's cap since she also won last year's Best Actress award (or "Shy People" - a film that went virtually unnoticed in the United States).

The thought of a Clint Eastwood-directed film competing at Cannes may seem, to many, to sum up the quality of this year's festival. But, surprise of surprises, not only did "Bird" look like it was directed by neither Dirty Harry nor the mayor of Carmel, it was one of the best things there.

Eastwood had the foresight to choose the very talented but heretofore under-used Forest Whitaker to play jazz-saxophonist Charlie Parker. Known most recently as Robin Williams' heavy but good-natured side-kick in "Good Morning Vietnam," Whitaker shows himself as an extremely promising and versatile

actor - and there was no surprise when he received the Best Actor award at the closing ceremonies.

Still, the film, at nearly three hours, is too long, and it's unrelentingly dark. Not only does "Bird" resemble the recent "Round Midnight," but it actually looks as if 90 percent of it were shot at midnight, during a massive New York blackout.

Mainland China has recently emerged as one of the most exciting film industries to watch, its "Red Sorghum" having just won the big prize in Berlin and "The Old Well" walking away with the major award in Tokyo. Expectations, then, were high for "The King of Children" by Chen Kaige ( young new director whose "Yellow Land" and "Big Parade" have also been recent prize-winners).

The real jolt of the festival came midway with Poland's "Thou Shalt Not Kill." The title says it all, during the film's grueling 90 minutes we see little more than a young man's prolonged murder of a cab driver, and then his own graphic death by hanging. There's been nothing quite like it for documentary-like realism, but the key-hole immediacy was so devastating (fter the sterile elegance of the films we'd been sleepwalking through) that audiences stood and looked at each other, unable to speak. We had finally been moved - even shocked, stunned. But it was suddenly the most difficult film of the festival to rate: Unquestionably superbly done, but why had he chosen to do it? The film, by Krzysztof Kieslowsky, was awarded the Jury Prize - and earned it.

It is little wonder then that, finally, Denmark's "Pelle the Conqueror" emerged from all of this with the festival's biggest prize of all - the Palme d'or. Never exactly gripping yet always interesting (espite, again, a running time of 2 1/2 hours), this story of a father and son who, as Swedish immigrants come at the turn of the century to work on a Danish island, is a solid cinematic achievement.

But if most of the major films left something to be desired, there were as usual, plenty of films among the 700 outside the main competition to get excited about.

Foremost, perhaps, was "Salaam Bombay" - a film by Mira Nair, a young Indian woman recently graduated from Harvard. Like the stirring documentary "Streetwise" and the partly fictionalized "Pixote," Nair's fictional film deals with the lives of young people who literally live on the streets in crowded Bombay, and it was deserving of the Golden Camera Award given to the best film by a new director.

Also notable this year were the Hungarian films "Cry and Cry Again," "Damnation," and "Season of Monsters"; the the Dutch "Havinck," "Mindshadows," and "Looking for Eileen;" the Swedish "Hip Hip Hurrah!"; the Italian "It's Happening Tomorrow"; the Russian "Assa"; the Bulgarian "Time of Violence"; and the U.S. "Wizard of Loneliness."

And from Great Britain, three films, that should be watched for: Evelyn Waugh's "A Handful of Dust" (onsidered by many, to be his best story has been done with Masterpiece Theater finesse; "Sour-sweet," an involving story interweaving the domestic problems and the gang wars of London's Chinese colony; and, perhaps most remarkable of all, Terence Davies' haunting "Distant Voices, Still Lives."

(B) Donald R. Marshall is a teacher at Brigham Young University and a freelance writer living in Utah County.