The Eighth Day
The Eighth Day
A film on general release where the lead actor has Down's Syndrome is a rare phenomenon. For that film also to receive awards is even more remarkable. But The Eighth Day is such a film. What is it like?
It is a French film with English subtitles and is a great achievement, without doubt. Two men take the lead roles - one is probably the most popular film star in France, David Auteuil; the other, Pascal Duquenne, makes his film debut as Georges, a man with Down's Syndrome. You would expect the first to do well. In fact, both produce a first class performance. The result is a film with humour and pathos, bringing together in stark contrast the vastly different worlds of the marketing executive and a person from an institution for people with learning difficulties.
There is a fascinating proximity between the two men and their contrasting lifestyles. Notably, they both experience and suffer from rejection: Harry from his own family; Georges from his family and the world at large. In the end, each makes his own escape from the pain this causes.
The impact of the world of learning disability on that of Harry, the successful executive, offers a profound challenge to values and attitudes regarded as normal in western society. Success is seen as worthless as its swallows up loving relationships in its voracious demands. In its wake, it leaves pain and grief. In contrast, those who seem inevitable failures reveal depths of relationship which overflow in infectious appreciation of the world around them.
Should we all rush out to see the film? Can we hope that it will remove public prejudice towards people with learning disabilities? My response to both questions is negative! The Independent described (or dismissed) the film as 'cloying', which seems about right. It is predictable and at times farcical. But worse, it will affirm for many the negative view they already have of people with learning disabilities. The stereotypes are there - the feeble disabled man with super-human strength, and even the Peter Pan syndrome complete with flying round the room! Georges is portrayed as stubborn, threatening and manipulative. His reaction to rejection is inane and frightening. True, his sense of fun and loyalty shine through, too. And his occasionally reincarnated mother is typically portrayed as over-protective.
At times it looks as though the film will address 'meaning of life' issues, but it never quite makes it. No-one in the film seems particularly 'normal' - except Harry's children. All the while Georges and his like remain something other, differently disturbing and, at the last, desperately excluded.