EO (Directed by Jerzy Skolomowski)
BFI Blu-Ray 2023.
Wikipedia absurdly describes EO as a drama road movie. Given the buddy / buddy image of the road film, and the fact that reckless humans, in their reckless cars, are that genre’s central focus, then EO doesn’t work like that. EO is the story of the tribulations of a Sardinian donkey: very attractively grey with white spots round its melancholic eyes. True this beautiful creature is driven in trucks and an animal transporter through Europe. Yet EO is no Easy Rider odyssey more an uneasy animal displacement as EO (also the name of the donkey) appears to impassively reflect on its mishandling by mostly unpleasant humans.
It’s ironic that when the animal rights activists get the Polish circus, where EO performs, shut down that a seemingly content donkey is separated from its very loving owner Kassandra (Sandra Drzymaiska giving a brief but moving performance). Once ‘liberated’ EO is bewildered and depressed. The donkey attempts to follow Kassandra; gets lost in a forest; wanders through an empty town; kicks a mink-farm worker in the forehead; stands too close to a football match causing a distraction for a penalty shot, then is later beaten up by members of the losing team: though EO is saved from death by a vet indifferent to the donkey’s suffering. But it’s not all cruelty heaped on an innocent beast. Skolomowski and scriptwriter Eva Piaskowska create scenes of spontaneous affection – besides Kassandra’s love for EO we have a party of schoolchildren and a farming couple responding kindly.
In interviews Skolomowski has praised the music of Pawel Mykietyn as providing “an inner monologue for the donkey.” Undoubtedly the impact of EO would have been reduced without the haunting pulse of Mykietyn’s beautiful soundscape. Only when there’s a sudden switch to the opening of Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto does music fail the film. Played over an aerial shot of the animal transporter, then a stunning mountain landscape, inserting Beethoven’s grandeur and nobility (albeit used ironically) felt misjudged, ponderous and signalling. Interesting to compare this with Balthazar where Schubert’s piano sonata no 20 accompanies the death of Bresson’s donkey. No self-aggrandizement here but a perfect integration of classical music with soulful drama.
The photography of EO by Michal Dymek and the editing of Agnieszka Glinska are brilliant and perfectly honed to the story. Instead of humanising the donkey the editing cleverly conveys the impression of EO as living in the present and wised up about those who treat him harshly in that moment. Six donkeys were used in the production of EO but principally two – a male called Tako and a female named Ettore. For intense close-ups Ettore proved the most effective at eliciting great sympathy whilst avoiding any manipulative sentimentality. And those shots of EO in the forest, performing at the circus and even simply running down a road at night are supercharged, whether colour filtered or beautifully lit, with a magical visual energy.
EO is a strangely moving film – very difficult to make an animal centred film that holds your attention only to be occasionally interrupted by human actors and their minimal dialogue. People narratives tend to tie in well with the life of EO. Yet the longest (non-donkey sequence) with stepmother countess (Isabelle Hubert) and stepson Mateo (Mateusz Kosclukiewicz) jarred and puzzled me. The stepson plays at being a priest giving her communion. The countess starts smashing plates and attacking her stepson for his gambling debts. This is all played out in an Italian villa and comes across as a kind of shallow, not clearly thought out, Bunuel-like (minus his teasing enigmas) ritual. I kind of understand its narcissism, hypocrisy and ‘decadence.’ But at another level I don’t. It’s over serious, lacking witty characters or obvious satire though it’s another important climax, a final exposure to irrational humans’ for EO, our hero / sometimes heroine donkey: for the gates of the villa experience an upsurge of magic realism and suddenly open to free EO. I’ve yet to read a coherent account of the film that provides a clear gloss on what’s really happening here. This strange family confrontation is stolidly absurd, not genuinely surreal and a little mad.
Thankfully Skolomowski never attempts to anthropomorphize his star donkey. And though, as a young director, he was inspired by Bresson’s truly great1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar (Still the most profound animal film in all cinema and much more besides) Skolomowski doesn’t give us a re-make. Balthazar is a spiritual religious allegory. EO is a post-Christian homage to Bresson: a compelling blend of the mystical, spiritual, surreal and very real throughout its 88 minutes.
EO is not the masterpiece that some have claimed it to be. But nonetheless this is a bold, engaging and hypnotic film unlike anything else you will see this year and begs to be seen (I’ve done so) on the big screen or experienced on this beautiful looking disc transfer. Skolomowski has said that watching Au Hasard Balthazar made him cry for the first time in the cinema. He believed Bresson’s donkey had really died. I wonder if Bresson would shed a tear if he could return and watch EO? – a film where we don’t see the donkey’s death but have it inferred by ominous sounds on a black screen. I certainly think Robert Bresson would have been intrigued and probably amazed by his lasting influence on a remarkable, outsider Polish filmmaker.