- Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
- Written by Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska
- starring Sandra Drzymalska and six different donkeys
- classification N/A; 86 minutes
- open in select theaters Nov. 25
The late Jean-Luc Godard said that Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s 1966 feature about a donkey and the dramas of its various owners, “is the world in an hour and a half.” More than five decades later, Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski takes inspiration from Bresson’s film to make his own story centered around a donkey, although his version of him is far more different and eccentric in its intention and execution. With the gorgeous, madcap, and dizzying EOSkolimowski doesn’t want his film to contain the world so much as experience it through the eyes of its non-human protagonist.
The film, which won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, starts with the first of several hallucinatory sequences, where strobing red lights show glimpses of the title character (portrayed by six different donkeys) laying on the ground before a young woman breathes life back into him. This turns out to be a circus act that EO does with performer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), until the establishment runs out of money and the animals get repossessed. EO gets taken away from Kasandra and starts his odyssey, first moving from one owner to another before running off on his own, where he crosses paths with a variety of people who either want to help or harm him.
Given that EO‘s central character can’t speak and has little agency, Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska maintain a barebones, episodic narrative structure, meaning a heavy emphasis on showing rather than telling.
And as far as experiences go, EO is a staggering piece of bravura filmmaking. Cinematographer Michal Dymek takes an all-out approach with the camera, switching up styles at a moment’s notice whether it is filming from the perspective of a junkyard crane moving scrap metal, flying drones through forests and wind turbines, or just taking in the beautiful landscapes across Poland and Italy. It’s impossible to guess where things will end up from one second to the next, which may sound daunting, but in the assured hands of Skolimowski and his crew, EO is downright exhilarating.
Just don’t think that the film is all style, or that there’s no method to the virtuoso madness on display. This is a movie for animal rights, and by taking EO‘s perspective, it forces viewers to distinguish between animals as they are versus how we project ourselves onto them.
At one point, when EO wanders into a small town’s soccer match, the winning team adopts him as their mascot, parading him around town before throwing a party. The whole ordeal isn’t EO’s thing, so he trots away from the celebration, only to encounter fans of the losing team who take their anger out on him. It’s a brief sequence, yet after spending so much time with EO, the effect of seeing him at the mercy of others placing him into arbitrary hero and villain roles is jarring. It also proves the film’s point that this donkey, like all animals, is its own being from him, and just as individual as those exerting control over him.
As harrowing as EO can get in showing the hard life animals have in an industrialized world, it’s far from a painful time at the movies. Skolimowski’s bonkers direction makes it easy to get swept up in every left turn and detour his film takes, where so much happens that a late cameo by an arthouse acting legend can easily get overlooked. In its relentless pursuit of disorienting audiences and unmooring them from narrative conventions, EO Compels us to see the world differently, and therefore helps us see it from a perspective outside our own.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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