Jerzy Skolimowski on his surreal donkey drama Eo: “I took Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar like a lesson from the old master”

The director of Deep End and Moonlighting tells us about his Robert Bresson-inspired odyssey into the mysterious subjectivity of a donkey.

2 February 2023

By David Thompson

EO (2022)
Sight and Sound

In Jerzy Skolimowski’s Eo, the protagonist is a donkey making a precarious journey from a Polish circus to Italy, enduring a wide spectrum of human behaviour. Since winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival the film has been rapturously received everywhere – a significant achievement for the 84-year-old director. After making politically acerbic films in Poland in the early 1960s, he became a nomadic figure with only occasional commercial success – notably Deep End (1970) and Moonlighting (1982). But Eo is the fourth film he has made since his return to Poland in the 2000s, and possesses an energy and imagination which place him once again among the greats.

You’ve confessed that your inspiration for Eo came from viewing Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar [1966], which takes a donkey’s life from birth to death as a thread for stories of human kindness and cruelty.

Bresson’s film was the only film at which I really shed a tear at the very end. Normally I have this kind of professional, cynical look at what is happening on the screen, but I took it like a lesson from the old master, who taught me that an animal can move the audience even more strongly than any humans. I believed in the death of a donkey, because we know that animals don’t act, they are just natural.

In Bresson’s film we observe at a distance, but in Eo you emphasise the point of view of the donkey, even taking us into his emotions and memories.

Generally we shot scenes in a kind of objective master shot to establish what was going on. Then we came closer to the donkey, and to his eyes for a point-of-view shot. The same scene seen through the donkey’s eyes seems slightly different. In a mysterious way some of the details of what the donkey notices make the scene more meaningful than in the objective shots.

Eo’s journey takes him through many different landscapes and moods and some scenes are truly surreal, such as when laser beams appear in the forest at night and are gradually revealed to be part of a hunt. Was that based on your own experience?

No, I imagined this. I don’t know if lasers are used in hunts. It’s purely from my imagination. But it looks real, doesn’t it?

The film has touched people in a way that your previous films never really aimed to do.

I think the difference between Eo and most of my other films is the emotional attitude. Here I really had to deal with the treatment of animals, and I’m afraid that the general attitude of human beings towards animals is totally unfair, and many times it is just cruel and barbaric. I must say I cut my own meat consumption by at least two-thirds, and some of the members of my crew actually stopped eating meat completely.

You refer to the donkey throughout the film as male, but in fact there were various donkeys of both sexes.

There were six different donkeys. But once when the male was going to find the female it suddenly stopped and there was no way of making him move. We discovered there was a section of electrical cable covered by leaves but not well enough, as the donkey was refusing to step over it. We rearranged the scene and eventually took the cable away. We had to be gentle and always observe what could be disturbing for the animal.


Eo is in cinemas from 3 February.

EO: Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey fable decries human greed and folly

The veteran Polish firebrand scopes modern Europe through the eyes of a donkey, with a nod to Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthasar but a woozy rage all Skolimowski’s own.

By Christina Newland

EO: Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey fable decries human greed and folly

 

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