Jerzy Skolimowski acknowledges that his donkey story, EO, takes another donkey story, Au Hasard Balthazar, as inspiration. His observation of the human element however is more ephemeral but no less scathing and incorporates patches of wildly dense and surreal colour as we journey with the little animal in search of peace and carrots.
Going into Jerzy Skolimowski’s Cannes Jury Prize winner EO, I was bracing myself for a tale of misery and cruelty akin to the Polish director’s acknowledged inspiration for this film, Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar. And although it’s not without such flashes, EO also has some capricious moments as we follow an independent-minded donkey on a journey across Polish and Italian landscapes.
Our donkey’s name is EO, and we first meet him performing in a circus where he is kindly treated and well-loved by Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), but from whom he is separated when the circus is closed down to avoid animal cruelty. From there, our donkey-eye view of the world sees him looking for nothing more than the freedom to wander around a little, and something to eat now and again. He encounters humans who treat him well, others who treat him badly, and yet more who claim him as a lucky charm, but they are little more than background– representing types rather than individuals. EO stays or is detained a while, then wanders away again when the mood or opportunity strikes.
And although the human characters don’t stay in his life for too long, Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska show variations on how, generally, people are quite horrible to each other, or are motivated by vanity, arrogance or superiority in their interpersonal dealings, making a human life much less attractive than the donkey’s.
Interest in sticking with EO’s story will, I suspect, depend upon how favourably viewers engage with films in which animals are the main protagonists. Obviously, there is little dialogue, and so much of the time in EO is spent with the camera gazing into the dark eyes of the donkey, anthropomorphising it so one could imagine we recognise jealousy or sadness or contempt in its eyes, and becoming a little sentimental. That’s not something which appeals to this particular viewer and I’ll admit to becoming a little impatient with being asked to look into the animal’s soul in this way. Other opinions are, of course, available.
EO is sometimes pensive, but not entirely downbeat. In contrast to Bresson, Skolimowski is working in colour and makes vivid use of vigorous red and vibrant blue, punctuating stages of the animal’s journey with surreal saturated lighting. There’s something very beautiful about the scenes in which the little animal wanders through the countryside, peacefully encountering birds, insects, streams, and forests, and here cinematographer Michal Dymek creates stunning images.
The end, although inevitable and hinted at early on, nevertheless creeps up and the only question remaining is – how much do those deep eyes of EO know?