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Early in The Eighth Day, uptight businessman Harry (Daniel Auteuil) takes retarded runaway Georges (Pascal Duquenne) to his home. Georges happily explores his new surroundings as Harry watches from a distance. The latter is startled when his new charge seems to walk across the surface of the pool, and goes to investigate. He’s relieved—as is the viewer—to discover that Georges was actually treading on a pool cover placed atop the water.

This moment seems to promise that the playful, innocent Georges is not a Christ figure, but writer/director Jaco Van Dormael has a hard time keeping such promises. The Eighth Day is a lot more knowing and piquant than such stateside counterparts as Rain Man but fundamentally not all that different. Van Dormael, who explored similar territory in his Toto the Hero, depicts everyday adult disagreeability that’s too vivid for Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s high priest of childhood. But he’s just as much of a sucker for childlike fantasy and guilelessness.

The film opens with a series of brief, elliptical scenes that establish Georges’ obsessions and Harry’s circumstances. The younger man, who has lived in an institution since the death of his mother, treasures TV, trees, language-instruction records, the music of mariachi singer Luis Mariano (Laszlo Harmati), and a woman who also has Down syndrome, Nathalie (Michèle Maes). (All of this plays out quite cleverly once Georges meets Harry, although Van Dormael ultimately overdoes the mariachi singer, who seems to have wandered in from Star Maps.) The older man is a slick sales-technique lecturer who stresses enthusiasm and big smiles as he secretly mourns the end of his marriage to the overdramatic Julie (Miou-Miou) and his ex-wife’s refusal to let him see his two young daughters.

Although his characters speak French, Van Dormael is no Parisian intellectual. The Belgian filmmaker started his entertainment career as a circus clown, and he still relishes belly laughs, teary eyes, and the crowd-pleasing gesture. The quick cuts and jarring shifts of tone in The Eighth Day’s introduction are more French than American, but the sequence also includes a shot of a swooping ladybug that’s pure Forrest Gump.

Once Harry is introduced, the tone becomes more familiar. Cruising in first class or honking in bumper-to-bumper Brussels traffic, the businessman is a customary American type: the driven achiever who needs to be taught, against his will, how to enjoy life. Having once forgotten to pick up his daughters at the train station, he has been banned from their lives. The older one’s birthday is approaching, and he needs a miracle by then. So, on a rainy road, he happens upon Georges, who has fled the home. Frustrated that he was left there while many of the other inhabitants went on weekend excursions, he’s searching for the mom (Isabelle Sadoyan) he has forgotten is dead. (Given the number of appearances by her ghost, audience members may also forget she’s deceased.)

This first encounter is admirably messy, as are many of the incidents Georges creates while in the reluctant Harry’s care. Georges likes to gorge on chocolate despite severe allergic reactions, tries to buy a 700-franc pair of shoes with only 26 francs in his pocket, and frequently proposes to women he’s just met. He also makes obscene gestures at a trucker, who is disinclined to listen to Harry’s explanations of Georges’ fundamental innocence.

One of Harry’s precepts is that salespeople must become as much like their clients as possible: “Similarity goes unnoticed,” he tells his corporate students. “Only difference surprises.” But what Harry needs, of course, is difference. As Harry’s despair grows, he comes to depend on Georges, who in turn takes on adult responsibilities in caring for his new friend: In the final regression, Georges pushes Harry on a swing at an empty amusement park.

The rest of the world, of course, is still surprised by difference. Most of the people who meet Georges find his looks—”I am Mongol,” he says when he meets Harry—as upsetting as his behavior. It’s a measure of Van Dormael’s fundamental Spielbergianism that the little girls (and boys) always understand. Although Georges is unwelcome in his sister’s home, her children are thrilled to see him; Harry’s daughters like him, too. The Eighth Day is harder-edged than Rain Man, but it’s not so candid as to admit that children can also fear and torment people who look different.

For American viewers who have seen Auteuil in chilly roles in such films as Un Coeur un Hiver and Les Voleurs, watching him loosen up is interesting, if not entirely convincing. A 12-year veteran of a Down syndrome acting troupe (and a player in Toto the Hero), Duquenne is remarkable, even when being romanticized by the movie’s fantasy sequences. (His co-star calls him “the Brando” of actors with Down syndrome.) For most of the film, Duquenne keeps the director’s more fanciful notions grounded in believability.

As Harry and Georges’ friendship grows, though, Van Dormael loses all sense of restraint. The sometimes witty, sometimes sticky fantasy sequences (which echo those in Toto the Hero) begin to infiltrate the main story, as when Georges instigates an improbable getaway from a museum field trip and leads a troupe of retarded men (and Nathalie, whom they somehow manage to pick up on the way) on an excursion to the seaside. The director also breaks the vow of the walking-on-water scene, turning Georges into a martyr (and maybe even a god). But then how much European skepticism can be expected from a movie so Hollywood that it includes a homage to Pulp Fiction (Georges does John Travolta’s dance in front of a bank of video monitors) and a musical motif that echoes the theme from Flashdance? The Eighth Day is classier than its American analogs, but ultimately no less sentimental. CP