Jerzy Skolimowski | 1hr 26min
If fate exists in EO, then it is not guided by some greater, divine being. Perhaps that is what most sets apart Jerzy Skolimowski’s animal road drama from its clearest influence, Au Hasard Balthazar, which roots itself far more deeply in religious iconography and symbolism. The only destiny that our aimless, drifting donkey is wandering towards here is the same as many other creatures he encounters along the way – cold, merciless death at the hands of humans.
To reach that inevitable endpoint though, EO must first undergo an odyssey across the towns, forests, and farms of Poland and Italy. It is tempting to personify the donkey as being more intelligent than he lets on, especially with those beautiful shallow focus close-ups which read into his dark, blank eyes, and those sporadic moments that see him take assertive action. Perhaps the trophy shelf he topples over at a stable isn’t really an accident, but rather his frustration at the clear inequality between him and the pampered horses he lives with. His violent attack of a man killing foxes at a fur factory could be an act of animal justice, carried out in the only way he knows how. Even his noisy braying at a soccer game might be interpreted as a playful sense of humour, given that its timing distracts the losing team during a penalty shot and hands their opponents the win.
Or maybe it is all just animal instinct, reacting without thought to an unpredictable environment. When he is glorified as the winning team’s mascot after the soccer game and taken to a bar for celebrations, there is nothing to suggest he can comprehend his lofty veneration. Neither can he grasp the reason for his punishment when the losing team ransack the party and beat him close to death. It is far easier for us to identify with these humans who attach some grander meaning to this donkey’s life than the animal itself, disregarding a far simpler reality – perhaps EO is just a beast of pure instinct, offering a perspective through which we can study his surroundings.
Indeed, there may be no creature better suited to witnessing all sides of humanity as him, if only he could piece together these experiences into something greater. This is where Skolimowski’s introspective direction is gently imprinted on the story, drawing remarkable formal connections between the representation of humanity in the vignettes it effortlessly drifts between. Besides EO, not a single character gets more than a few minutes of screentime, and yet it is in these brief moments where they are faced with the world’s most common creature that their truest selves come out.
In the donkey’s original owner, Kasandra, we find nothing but genuine compassion, though the same cannot be said for the labourers, hunters, and protestors who see him as little more than a means to self-interested ends. It is evident that these attitudes extend past animals as well, as the driver of a truck he is being transported on late in the film meets a grisly end at the hands of a random, unidentified killer. Such cruelty is clearly not contained to interspecies relations. This is a dog-eat-dog world from the top down.
Particularly fascinating is the subplot that emerges in the final scenes, centred around a kind, young priest who takes the donkey back to his estate. The short glimpse we are offered into his life is more scandalous than anything else we have witnessed yet. His stepmother, played by the great Isabelle Huppert with chilly disdain, taunts him over his gambling addiction, and yet they also carry out an uncomfortable sexual affair away from prying eyes. In any other film this would carry enough weight to justify being the main story. To the donkey who passively stands outside, it couldn’t matter less. And so off he plods once again through the gate that has been carelessly left open, towards wherever his instincts guide him next.
These scenes of the priest and the Countess are unusually populated with dialogue for a film which is otherwise so minimalist in its screenplay. Save for those times when people speak directly to EO like a friend, there is simply no need for speech to move this story along. Instead, Skolimowski’s elliptical editing keeps it progressing in almost dreamy manner, eroding our sense of whether this narrative unfolds over weeks, months, or years. It barely makes a difference in the end. Like the human drama he nonchalantly passes by, measures of time mean nothing to this donkey.
Rather than looking to the past or future, there is an emphasis on the sensory experience of each isolated moment in EO, rendered with visual majesty in long shots that shrink our protagonist against a variety of magnificent European landscapes. Vague paths are sketched out in gorgeous compositions of urban structures and expansive fields, and in one fairy tale-like interlude, we cut between the animals of a forest peacefully going about their business, temporarily undisturbed by the harmful activity of humans.
Though Skolimowski’s film frequently unfolds naturalistically, it is evident in sequences like these that he is not aiming for pure realism. At his most stylistically extreme, he even submits us to psychedelic, red-tinted dreams that could very well take place in EO’s mind, occasionally recalling his origins at the circus he might be trying to find his way back to, and at one point soaring through a forest in a glorious long take. His perspective is far from objective, and yet there is a tragic beauty in its lonely transience. Humanity has never looked as simultaneously kind and cruel as it does through the eyes of the world’s lowliest beast, through which EO unveils its profoundly graceful meditations on our most fundamental nature.
EO is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.