Barbara Hershey, who portrays a stubborn bayou mother in Andrei Konchalovsky's "Shy People," was named best actress of the 40th Cannes Film Festival, which closed its 12-day run Tuesday night.

Hershey's performance has been highly regarded by critics here, but her award was a mild surprise since the film itself, a drama about a New York magazine writer (Jill Clayburgh) who goes into the Louisiana swamps to interview distant relatives, was soundly panned.

Hershey was the only award winner from the United States in ceremonies punctuated by protesting French medical students in the streets outside the festival Palais.

The students, dressed in medical white, were protesting new government regulations regarding testing of medical students. Four years ago during the festival, rioting medical students painted the town red--literally--by smashing IV bottles filled with red paint against buildings along the Croisette.

Tuesday evening's demonstration was noisy but peaceful, and far more good-natured than the French audience inside the Palais when the French film "Under Satan's Sun" was announced as winner of the festival's top prize, the Gold Palm.

The festival is always laced with political rumors and this year's hot tip was that a French film--apropos the 40th anniversary celebration--would win. The audience jeered and whistled loudly when jury President Yves Montand announced "Under Satan's Sun" as the big winner.

The movie, directed by Maurice Pialat, stars Pialat as a priest fighting the devil for the salvation of a young girl (Sandrine Bonnaire).

"Under Satan's Sun" was modestly popular with international critics, but the clear favorite among them was the Soviet film "Repentance," which will be released by Cannon Films in the United States.

"Repentance" was given the special jury award, which is generally scoffed at by critics as a consolation prize.

Pialat, speaking after a long pause to let the jeering subside, held a fist in the air and told his detractors, "If you don't like my film, I don't like you."

The festival's most popular winner was Marcello Mastroianni, selected as best actor for "Dark Eyes," an Italian film directed by Soviet emigre Nikita Mikhalkov. (Island Pictures will release "Dark Eyes" in the U.S. this fall.)

West Germany's Wim Wenders, whose "Paris, Texas" won the Gold Palm in 1984, was named best director Tuesday for "Wings of Desire," the story of an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist.

The Cannes jury, composed of nine journalists, actors and film makers, typically spreads its prizes among as many films as possible. This year was no exception.

Other films receiving technical or special awards were Stephen Frears' "Prick Up Your Ears" (Great Britain); Souleymane Cisse's "Brightness" (Mali), and Rentaro Mikuni's "Shinran: The Path to Purity" (Japan).

In addition, American actresses Jean Simmons and Jane Russell were acknowledged with special homages.

Hershey, who will next star in a film being directed by cinematographer Chris Menges in South Africa, said earlier in the week that her apparent rediscovery by American audiences is an illusion that she will gladly take.

"I had never been in a really successful film until 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' " she said. "The fact that Hannah was re-released about the same time 'Hoosiers' and 'Tin Men' came out made it look like I was the busiest actress on Earth. The truth is that those films were all I did over two years."

"Shy People," one of only three American films in the main competition, will be released this fall in the United States by Cannon Films.

Hershey said this is the first time as an actress where she is in the position of being able to control her career, where she may be able to actually save her performances from ending up on the cutting-room floor.

She lost a performance that was as recently as "Hoosiers," she said.

"They liked the basketball, so they said cut the romance, add more basketball," she said. "That is always the way."

Hershey, who went into the bayou to study accents for "Shy People," said this may be the richest role of her career. "Hannah" may have been the turning point in getting her noticed. "Shy People" may give her the one thing she said she's always wanted: the security of knowing there is going to be more work.

"All I want is to get another role that is better than the last one," she said.

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