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.

EO (2022)
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

An 86-minute spin-dryer of sound and image, EO is an animal rights rallying cry, a bizarre donkey’s-eye-view art film, and one other thing: a loose retelling of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthasar. Even for elderly Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski, responsible for the stylishly zoned-out, subversive Deep End (1970) and a handful of other innovative films over the intervening years, that’s a tall order. Au Hasard Balthasar was a film that Jean Luc-Godard once described as “containing the world in an hour and a half”.

Yet right from the opening frames of EO we understand this is not an attempt to restage Bresson’s religious allegory of human cruelty and salvation. It opens with strobing red lights over a staged circus performance, one where a young woman (Sandra Dryzmalska) stands over a donkey on its back. With its four hooves in the air, she pretends to resurrect it as it jumps to its feet on cue. It’s an immediate distinction from the stark, clean simplicity of Bresson’s work, and perhaps all the better for it: Skolimowski’s free-floating camera, red filters and abrupt perspective switches all suggest a bold aesthetic of its own making rather than a likely ill-fated attempt to mimic a classic.

What EO shares with Balthasar are the most basic parts of its DNA: the story of a humble donkey who is separated from a young woman who dotes on him, unwillingly sent on an odyssey from owner to owner, facility to farm, kindness to savagery. We soon learn that EO – a soft-muzzled grey circus donkey – was actually rather content and protected by his handler.

His journey begins when he is forced into relocation after animal-rights activists picket the circus. (The egotism of the well-intentioned is a frequent theme here: even the humans who mean well are too alienated from the natural world to truly protect it.) The mule gets lost – or runs away – from the farm he is taken to, showing real agency when he wishes to escape; he wanders the woods at night in a surreal, fairy-tale-like sequence. The film switches to EO’s own perspective at points as he watches lonely frogs leap through trickling streams, his affinity for his fellow animals shown in sharp relief to smoke-billowing power plants, ugly industrialism and busy highways encroaching on the natural world. From lonely country roads to city streets, football pitches to the Italian countryside, EO’s long journey across Europe reveals the rotten heart of its modernity, contrasted with the tender innocence of this animal. 

EO (2022)

The camerawork sometimes seems to be omniscient as it flips upside down, snakes over mountains and rivers and dwarfs its sweet little mule against the roaring power of man-made dams or hunting-rifle lasers. Cockeyed, beautiful and sensitive even in its depiction of occasional animal cruelty, it has a cumulative effect that borders on the hypnotic. Its one visual homage to Bresson occurs in tight close-up on EO’s large, liquid brown eyes, an effect that remains as haunting as ever.

This is a film which concerns itself with nebulous and wide-reaching subjects, never exactly didactic but also never unclear about its aims as a dressing-down of European greed and indifference to suffering. Through its various episodes, it highlights the exploitation of the weak and the innocent, from a Polish trucker attempting to sexually assault a starving migrant worker to the carnivorous, leather- and fur-wearing indifference of the various characters who drift into the story. In a heart-wrenching segment, EO meets hooligan football fans whose tribalism and violence nearly get him killed. But it is more often human myopia that does damage: we are a drain on the pastoral, natural world. And who can blame Skolimowski, at 84, for thinking so? EO himself is always on the side of his fellow occupants of a simpler, older world; at one point, he kicks a mink-farm worker square in the forehead. This can verge on the comic or even goofy – yet the visual experimentation and narrative unpredictability are constantly engaging.

Even for those of us who have the narrative of Bresson’s more spiritual film imprinted on our memories, EO is never obvious about where it’s heading, maybe because its protagonist doesn’t know either. The film can be unwieldy, cartoonish and head-scratching. And yet it is bold in a way few contemporary films truly are, and its culmination of sound and image before the final cut to black is like a fist closing around your heart.

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