Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film “EO”, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festivial early in last year and then was Oscar-nominated for Best International Film in last month, follows the life journey of one plain donkey. While it is surely influenced by Robert Bresson’s great film “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966) in many aspects, the movie has its own style and mood with contempoary touches to notice, and I admire how it subtly lets us have more empathy toward its titular donkey along its simple narrative.
The opening part of the film shows the close relationship between its titular donkey and a young female circus employee named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). We see them doing their routine performance in front of the audiences, and we come to sense that Kasandra really cares about her donkey, but, alas, they soon become separated from each other because their circus is eventually shut down due to its financial problems as well as a bunch of angry animal rights activists out there.
Now this looks like the setup for your average wholesome animal drama for family audiences, but the screenplay by Skolimowski and his co-writer/producer Ewa Piaskowska does not resort to any bit of cuteness or sentimentality. Once the circus is out of business, our titular donkey and other horses are quickly sent to somewhere else, and we subsequently see the donkey living in a newly opened stable which is big enough for it and other horses. As the camera just looks closely at the donkey and its two big eyes, we get occasional flashback shots, but the movie never sentimentalizes this moment, while never specifying whatever the donkey thinks and feels at present.
However, there are some small humorous moments which slyly suggest a bit about how our titular donkey hero feels. For example, when two horses in the stable are treated rather roughly by several stable employees, the camera comes to focus on how the donkey comes to cause a little annoying problem for those stable employees. Regardless of whether this is intentional or not, that will probably make you reflect more on how often animals are mistreated throughout the human history.
Around the narrative point where our titular donkey finds itself wandering by itself in the middle of a forest, the movie unexpectedly goes for striking stylish touches. As a matter of fact, one certain sequence, which is filled with red light like some of key moments in the film, feels as psychedelic as that dazzling lightshow of the climactic part of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001; A Space Odyssey” (1968), and we also get a surreal moment when the donkey is replaced by a certain artificial object on the screen for no apparent reason.
To be frank with you, I felt rather distant to these and other baffling stylish moments in the film, but the journey of its titular donkey kept holding my attention, and I came to care more about what it had to endure due to the callous cruelty of human beings. In case of one episode in the middle of the film, the donkey unintentionally gets itself involved with a fierce local football game, and that unfortunately leads to an atrocious moment of violence. Although this terrible moment is mainly presented through the donkey’s view, it will horrify you a lot nonetheless, and you will be relieved to be reminded later that no animal was harmed during the production of the film.
One of the more entertaining parts come from the one involved with a character played by Isabelle Huppert. When the donkey arrives along with a lad who seems to be her stepson, she is not particularly amused at all, and we get to know more of how she and her stepson have been estranged from each other for years. Like many other performers in the film, Huppert simply come and go around the donkey, but she leaves some indelible impression nonetheless, while also subtly suggesting a long unpleasant history between her character and that lad.
In the end, our titular donkey arrives at the end of his journey in an unexpected way just like the donkey of Bresson’s 1966 film, but we are chilled a lot instead of getting some consolation. At least, the donkey is surrounded by a bunch of other animals which also have no idea on whatever will happen next, but all of them do not get much compassion as they are moved to their final destination, and, sadly, that is all.
The movie never asks for any pity or sympathy on its titular donkey, but it still comes to us as a real character to care about, and Skolimowski and his crew members including cinematographer Michał Dymek did a commendable job of presenting it with enough respect and sensitivity. Although the donkey was actually played by six different donkeys during the shooting, they look all convincing as one single animal character, and the result is unforgettable as the donkey in Bresson’s 1966 film.
Overall, “EO” is worthwhile to watch for several good reasons including Skolimowski’s skillful handling of mood and style, and it certainly makes an excellent double feature show with Bresson’s 1966 film. We may never fully understand what animals really think or feel, but they do deserve some compassion and empathy from us, and the movie powerfully reminds us of that important thing.
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