Neologists of the world may have to cook up new words for cute after Jaco Van Dormael’s “The Eighth Day,” the story of a Down’s syndrome-afflicted innocent who brings warmth, humanity and color into the gray life of an emotionally stifled businessman. Distribs could have a tough time finding arthouse audiences uncynical enough to swallow this commercially slanted, relentlessly saccharine crowd-pleaser, the long-awaited second feature from the Belgian director of “Toto the Hero.” A push into the more mainstream marketplace may yield better results.
Here and in the far more restrained “Toto,” former circus clown and children’s theater director Van Dormael weaves in songs and moments of sheer exuberance that seem to come straight out of a musical. The question that arises is why this talented filmmaker doesn’t just go ahead and make an all-singing, all-dancing, old-fashioned Hollywood musical, which would appear to be the only genre able to accommodate the gushing sentimentality on tap here.
The film does have merits, one of them being a terrific central performance from Pascal Duquenne, who appeared as the title character’s brother in “Toto.” He plays Georges, who has been in an institution for the mentally disabled since the death of his mother a few years earlier. His charmed world is presented in a lesson-like intro that illustrates his peculiar worldview with a point-by-point recap of what he believes to be God’s main achievements during the seven days of creation.
Work-obsessed Harry (Daniel Auteuil) is presented giving a seminar on sales technique. His is a colorless existence, made even bleaker by the sudden departure of his wife, Julie (Miou-Miou), and their two daughters. Driving home in the rain, he encounters Georges on the road; he has abandoned the institution to return to his mother, whose death has slipped his mind. Unable to unload him at the next police station, Harry takes him home for the night.
Georges proves impossible to shake off. Harry delivers him to his sister (Fabienne Loriaux), who explains her reluctance to take responsibility for him in one of the film’s more emotionally true moments. But his demanding, unpredictable, affectionate behavior begins slowly to grow on Harry, who responds to Georges’ enthusiastic appreciation of his friendship.
Georges accompanies Harry to his wife’s house, but she refuses him entry, and his young daughters have been disappointed by him too often to be welcoming. Childlike Georges then steps into the adult role, calming and comforting his friend. Georges is reluctantly returned to the home, butduring a group excursion into the city, he takes off with a bunch of other patients.
From this point on, things take a more fanciful turn as the unsupervised band steals a van from a car showroom and rescues Harry from a business conference that’s preventing him from celebrating his daughter’s birthday. While he organizes a fireworks display in front of Julie’s house, the escapees take over a fair, and Georges rather touchingly takes his sweetheart to bed. A few too many endings follow, but the story’s main conclusion is a tragic one, painted with light, bittersweet brush strokes.
The final section involving Georges’ companions is where Van Dormael really gives vent to sentimental excess. The heavy accent on the group’s lovable eccentricities — presenting them almost as privileged by view of their purity and simplicity — makes this portion of the pic play like the human alternative to “Babe” by way of “Rain Man,” and some undoubtedly will find this both manipulative and exploitative.
Cloying as it is, and with a meeting-of-two-worlds story that’s far from original, “The Eighth Day” is nonetheless a considerable technical accomplishment. It impresses with its stylistic audaciousness, visual inventiveness, dazzling use of color and frequent touches of whimsy.
These include a gaily appareled Mexican crooner serenading Georges from the hood of Harry’s car as they speed through the countryside and a sequence in which the same man appears as a singing mouse, causing Georges to fly around the room with a flock of doves. Deducing that “Mongoloids” come from Mongolia, Georges also imagines an elaborate scene with his fellow patients in folkloric garb on the Mongolian plains.
Auteuil is solid and sympathetic, but his transition from austerity to caring-and-sharing effusiveness is a little abrupt to be credible. The film’s real center is Duquenne. His humor and energy inevitably are infectious, and his suffering at any sign of rejection often is genuinely moving.