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Living for the 'Day'

Belgian-born Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne find friendship on and off the screen as co-stars of 'The Eighth Day.'

March 20, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At last year's Cannes Film Festival, the writer and director of "The Eighth Day," Jaco Van Dormael, and his co-stars, Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne, were greeted with resounding boos at the press screening.

Then, days later, they heard what Auteuil estimates as a 15-minute standing ovation for the film at the festival screening. Awards night arrived and Auteuil and Duquenne basked in the glow as co-winners of the best actor awards.

Just another week at Cannes, perhaps, but indicative of the strong responses the acting duo of veteran Auteuil and film newcomer Duquenne (who has Down syndrome) trigger in Van Dormael's follow-up to his hugely acclaimed 1991 feature debut, "Toto le Heros."

Van Dormael's story of how Harry (Auteuil), a quintessentially French corporate worker whose personal life is drained of meaning, meets and gradually bonds with Georges (Duquenne), who has escaped from a medical institution despite his Down syndrome, hinges fundamentally on the chemistry between Auteuil and Duquenne.

"It was very strange," the Belgian-born Van Dormael said during a visit to Los Angeles, "because you work and work on the script, month after month, year after year--I am very slow and maybe a bit lazy--and then you see that it all comes down to these two actors. And because, in the beginning of the shoot, Pascal's memory wasn't there at all, there was no use rehearsing in any formal way. So I hoped we could just get together for a few days."

The first day, Duquenne wasn't feeling well. The second day, sudden snow flurries kept everyone huddled at home. The third day, the sun came out and Auteuil and Duquenne spent their time hanging out in the countryside--not unlike Harry and Georges in the film. "It was the best preparation of all," Van Dormael said.

For all their obvious differences, the suave Autueil (who co-starred with Catherine Deneuve in "Les Voleurs" and "Ma Saison Preferee") and the charming, round-faced Duquenne (who debuted on film in "Toto") are both stage kids.

Duquenne, like Van Dormael a Belgium native, has long been a member of that country's CREAHM troupe, which includes disabled performers employing clowning, circus, acrobatics and performance art. Auteuil's parents were opera and operetta singers, and prodded their 4-year-old son on stage for a production of "Madame Butterfly."

"Any time they wanted a little monkey on stage, I was there," Auteuil said, speaking through a translator and sitting at a table in a West Hollywood hotel suite with Duquenne. By his teens, though, Auteuil realized that these musical forms weren't satisfying his needs for fully expressing himself, and "I became very frustrated when I missed catching the visiting troupes from Paris when they hit the provinces, where my parents toured."

He may have been intent on a stage career, but Auteuil quickly found himself doing commercials--his first, ironically, as part of a background for an ad starring Deneuve herself. Beginning in 1974, Auteuil became one of the hardest-working actors in French cinema, making 22 films before his international breakthrough in 1985 with "Jean De Florette" and "Manon of the Spring."

Nonetheless, he said, "I was very jealous when I went to see Pascal and his company perform their incredible acts." Duquenne interrupts: "You know the splits that I do in the film? I do them much better when playing with CREAHM." Auteuil picks up from there: "Here was Pascal, leading his actors over to Jaco, who was also there--Jaco started out in show business as a clown, you know--and they all hugged him. The key expression for Pascal's group isn't verbal, but physical, and it's something for a verbal fellow like me to learn from."

"Other kids in my company," Duquenne said, "tell me how impressed they were that I starred in this film. It's great for me, but there are many Mongol kids ["Mongol" is the French term for people with Down syndrome] who do theater and perform. It makes it easier for them to go to places alone, eat alone, clean their room, work and play sports." Duquenne does this, and more, including a reportedly mean samba-reggae percussion.

The Golden Globe-nominated "The Eighth Day" is not a case of Van Dormael recently discovering what he calls "the incredible power of Down syndrome actors," but a kind of follow-through and response to his 1982 short, "L'Imitateur," which depicted a tragic night shared by a man with a brain lesion and a friend with Down syndrome.

"I also wanted to do something very different from 'Toto,' which dealt with memory," Van Dormael said. "Here, we have two clowns, this old tradition that dates back to medieval theater of characters who force us to look at the world in a different way.

"And so Pascal was always in my mind for this. What he brought to the filming was the sense that nobody had to pretend, everybody had to be true to the material. He's not just uninhibited, the way a lot of people with Down syndrome can be, but he also always gives 100% and more to the work.

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