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EO: A vivid update on the most famous of donkey films

‘EO’ is recognisable as an update on ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ but Jerzy Skolimowski has his own concerns and vision

A still from 'EO'
A still from 'EO'

Abeautifully off-kilter moment at the Cannes Film Festival last year was when Jerzy Skolimowski was awarded the Jury Prize for his film, EO. “I would like to thank my donkeys,” he began his acceptance speech. The Polish director proceeded to list, by region, with great care, all six donkeys who played the titular character in his film. He ended with a bray: “Eeeeoo”.

In telling the story of a donkey navigating a corrupt, venal, violent human world, Skolimowski tips his hat to a film over five decades old. Au Hasard Balthazar, directed by Robert Bresson, is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. A donkey named Balthazar is separated from the only human who loves it, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), and passes from one cruel owner to another. The Balthazar of legend was one of three Magi in the Bible—given Bresson’s Catholic upbringing, it’s no surprise that the donkey Balthazar’s sufferings have a Christ-like aspect.

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EO is immediately recognisable as an update on Au Hasard Balthazar—the same essential story with a few tweaks. EO starts the film as part of a travelling circus in Poland. He has a close bond with the performer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), whose act he’s part of. When animal rights activists shut down the circus, he’s taken to a horse stable, then to a petting farm, and so on. Whatever new situation EO finds himself in, he remains unhappy and listless. In flashbacks, we seem to see him remember his time with Kasandra.

Yet, Skolimowski’s film also has its own concerns and vision. Bresson was interested in Balthazar as an allegory and an object of pity but no real affection for the animal comes through in his film. Skolimoswki, on the other hand, is clearly enamoured of these gentle creatures. The religious overtones of Bresson are gone, replaced by a protagonist so sympathetic we feel we can read his thoughts. In one scene, Kasandra has a touching reunion with EO across a fence on his birthday in the dead of night. As she’s driven away by her friend, she hears a long bray in the distance. It’s a heartrending sound—or it could be me projecting my feelings onto a regular bray.

Skolimowski seems fascinated by nature in general, filling his film with fields, farms, snowy mountains, forests. He gives over long sequences to horses running in a field at dusk or nocturnal creatures watching the donkey by a stream by moonlight. Au Hasard Balthazar was set in a human world, with multiple speaking characters and storylines. EO, by contrast, is a largely wordless film. The humans are of little importance here, barely registering as characters (including the countess played by Isabelle Huppert). Michał Dymek’s camera is often right up against the animals. This is the donkey’s story, and, often, we are literally seeing the world from his point of view.

I knew Skolimowski from his work as an actor and a writer: a small but memorable turn as a boxer in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (a film he co-wrote), the dialogue for Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water, a part in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. But he has also been a director since 1960’s The Menacing Eye, with over 20 films, notably Deep End, starring Jane Asher, and The Departure, Golden Bear winner at the 1967 Berlinale. EO isn’t the kind of work you would expect from an 80-something film-maker—the acid tinges are more like something Carlos Reygadas or Gaspar Noé might attempt. Had EO released in the 1960s, it would have been called a “head trip”. Sometimes the screen turns dark red or blue, like colourised silent film; sometimes strobe lights flash. There are interludes that come out of nowhere—why are we suddenly following a robot dog in a field? The images bend and warp on occasion, as if we are seeing through an animal’s eyes. Dymek works subtler wonders as well—there’s a trick shot towards the end when the donkey and the trees in the back seem to blend into one.

One particular sequence made me smile at the audacity of the film-making. EO is jogging across the wilderness when the camera takes off. It zooms over a forest towards a menacingly scything windmill, does a 360-degree loop and then another, the soundtrack switching from strings to grinding electric guitar. It ends with EO under the giant windmill, the sky a hellish red, like an F.W. Murnau horror frame.

EO is a strange mix: part eco-horror, part morality tale, part psychedelic freakout. Somehow Skolimowski, his co-writer and wife, Ewa Piaskowska, Dymek and inventive composer Paweł Mykietyn make it work, continually finding ways to expand their canvas, though always returning to their determined little protagonist. One of EO’s many escapes comes when an Italian priest finds him by the roadside. “Did I just save you or have I stolen you?” he muses as he unties the rope attached to a pole. “I hope you’re not a criminal,” he adds. It’s in keeping with EO’s philosophy that the priest is actually sinning and the donkey is the only one who’s wholly innocent.

EO is on BookMyShow Stream.

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