Friday March 7, 1997

     "The Eighth Day" is a daring film even for so venturesome a filmmaker as Belgium's Jaco van Dormael, whose 1991 "Toto le Heros" was such a brilliantly original exploration of fate and identity. What's daring is not so much its teaming of major French star Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne, who in real life has Down's syndrome, but how close it comes to being like a Hollywood buddy movie only to pull back for a stunning pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you climax.
     Duquenne's uninhibited, irrepressible Georges, longing for his mother who so loved him, escapes a rural institution and crosses paths with Auteuil's Harry, a genius at teaching salesmanship but such a disaster at marriage that his estranged wife (Miou-Miou) has forbidden him to see his young daughters after he misses connecting with them at a train station. When Harry gives Georges a lift on a country road, he's as starved for love and affection as Georges is.
     Van Dormael finds much humor in Georges' antics, often understandably infuriating to uptight Harry, but ever so gradually, without our noticing it, the tone of "The Eighth Day" becomes more serious as the friendship between Harry and Georges deepens. In form, the film may sound conventional, sentimental even, but it evolves into something quite extraordinary and also unsettling, far more so than either "Rain Man" or "Forrest Gump."
     The more the film progresses the more Georges affects Harry and the more they seem fundamentally alike in their longings. By the same token, we become increasingly persuaded that Van Dormael is not merely manipulating our emotions--an easy enough feat in regard to Georges--but has a larger purpose in mind.
     There's always the possibility that, despite his wife's adamant stand, Harry will win his family back. But how will Georges ever be able to know the love and independence he so craves? Georges is so sweet-natured and affectionate he can't fail to touch you, but you have to ask yourself if you would be prepared to care for him. How many people are there out there who would really be ready to nurture him as his mother did?
     It's not so much that Georges is different as that he's such a big responsibility. Yet if no one does step forward, how can he feel he has any place in society? As before, Van Dormael poses hard questions. Yet as admirable and engrossing as this film is, it is not quite on the level of "Toto le Heros," principally because of an epilogue that softens its climax and redundantly illustrates how Georges has transformed Harry's life.
     Van Dormael also inspires the kind of performances that receive Oscars. Auteuil has long been established in the French cinema as an actor of seemingly limitless range, depth and passion, qualities that characterize his portrayal of Harry. Yet Duquenne, who has appeared on stage for more than a decade and was in "Toto le Heros," is every bit as accomplished as a man with a spirit that soars but who is tethered by cruel realities that he is only too aware of.
     "The Eighth Day" is the kind of picture you'd hate to miss but would probably find too harrowing to sit through a second time.


The Eighth Day, 1997. Unrated. A Gramercy Pictures release made with the participation of Canal Plus, the French National Office for Film and Audio-Visual Arts of the French Community of Belgium. Writer-director Jaco van Dormael. Producer Philippe Godeau. Screenplay consultants Laurette Vankeerberghen. Cinematographer Walther vanden Ende. Editor Susana Rossberg. Costumes Yan Tax. Music Pierre van Dormael. Set designer Hubert Pouille. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Daniel Auteuil as Harry. Pascal Duquenne as Georges. Miou-Miou as Julie. Isabelle Sadoyan as Georges' mother.