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Send in the Clowns

Eighth Day
Marc Detiffe

Stopping to Smell the Grass: Georges (left, Pascal Duquenne) and his new friend Harry (Daniel Auteuil) take a pastoral break.

Technically sharp 'Eighth Day' is soft in the head

By Richard von Busack

Maybe dramas about the mentally handicapped as good examples for the rest of us are veiled messages of consolation: Who doesn't feel soft in the head confronted by the great advances in science and technology? The various slow learners in such popular movies as Rain Man, Sling Blade and Forrest Gump reaffirm the comforting belief that a sound heart trumps a strong brain. And, as in Rain Man, the superior but similarly plotted new Belgian import The Eighth Day provides the same lesson to the heartless as that nursery rhyme: " 'Don't Care' was made to care / 'Don't Care' was hung / 'Don't Care' was put into a pot / and boiled until he was done."

An emotionally retarded businessman named Harry (Daniel Auteuil) doesn't care; he's importing American-style motivational techniques to Europe. Every morning, he rises from his lonely bed, gets stuck in traffic and goes to auditoriums to teach people how to smile and look confident. His messy relationship with his estranged wife, Julie (Miou-Miou), adds to his unhappiness. Matched against this story is the contrasting tale of a happy, transcendental young man with Down's Syndrome, Georges (Pascal Duquenne), who runs away from his group home to go back to the place where he grew up. Harry almost runs over Georges on a narrow country highway. The two embark on a series of adventures: Georges finds a girlfriend and Harry learns to rediscover his emotions.

The magical-realist methods director/writer Jaco van Dormael uses are adroit. There's an inspired opening montage depicting Georges' imagination of how the world was created. Van Dormael makes sure that the characters are grounded. Georges, though lovable, is a genuine handful. He's messy and noisy, giving to howling when he's thwarted. Auteuil uses his considerable skill to keep deep existential despair from looking like self-pity. The vision of his ruined marriage--helped by a quiet, brief but powerful performance by Miou-Miou, has real pain in it.

Ultimately The Eighth Day is too long and too sticky to recommend. Van Dormael, who created the wild, engrossing Toto the Hero, was a professional clown for a while; he also made a short film, La Imitatour, about a pair of mentally retarded youths lost in the city. The finale of The Eighth Day is, figuratively speaking, the chalky aftertaste of this sweet. For a big finale, a bus load of the mentally challenged are let loose in an closed seaside amusement park. Watching them cavort--Van Dormael's answer to the Fellini parade of fools--I began to wonder whether the director had confused these people with clowns.

The Eighth Day is such a heavy reminder of the importance of being sensitive to those who are different that the perhaps insensitive ending seems to subvert the films' appeal to the emotions. Do I have to add that Georges becomes all the more Christlike in the film's conclusion? Van Dormael's work is exciting; his movies have enough technical precision to record the tumbling of an ant down the drain, as in the beginning of The Eighth Day. The fine technique encloses a very soft-witted message (namely, that the mentally handicapped are closer to God than us smart-alecks), which itself doesn't exactly do wonders for the public intelligence.

The Eighth Day, directed and written by Jaco Van Dormael, photographed by Walther Van Ende and starring Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne.

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro

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