No matter how deep into cinema you get, there will always be reminders of how much you haven’t seen yet. One of those recent reminders was when the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was won by an octogenarian Polish filmmaker named Jerzy Skolimowski, who was very well respected but whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with. Skolimowski was a contemporary of Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski when they were in Poland, but like Polanski he did most of his work outside of his native country. His most famous movies were the 1970 movie Deep End and the 1982 film Moonlighting (not to be confused with the Bruce Willis Show), both of which I’ve probably seen on lists but which haven’t been terribly easy to obtain, so I’m really not familiar with this guy’s highly respected career. In fact the one thing I do know Skolimowski from are various acting jobs he’s taken over the years. He’s actually in Marvel’s The Avengers of all things for something like five minutes, but more notably he rather memorably plays the father of Naomi Watts’ character in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Some of those earlier films did just show up on The Criterion Channel, so I’ll probably be trying to catch up with them, but I had to go into his latest film (possibly a career culmination?) pretty much blind and kind of take it on its own merits removed from that kind of context and I’m not sure if that was for the best or not.
The title EO simply an onomatopoeia for the sound of a donkey braying, what us in the Anglosphere would write as “hee haw.” That’s because the figure at the center of this movie is in fact a donkey, who is himself named “EO.” At the beginning of the film EO is working as a beast of burden for a traveling circus under an owner who’s a bit rough and unpleasant but he is well liked by another circus performer named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), but eventually this arrangement falls apart as a group of animal rights activists shut down the circus and EO finds himself sent to some sort of farm. It would not be accurate to say this makes things better though as he runs away from there and eventually finds himself taken in by a series of owners including a drunken soccer team, a fox fur farmer, a trucker, and a pair of Italian nobles. EO is not anthropomorphized at all along the way; he doesn’t talk, nor are we privy to his thoughts, and he does not display any sort of abnormal intelligence or emotion as far as one would expect from a jackass. Our time with each one of EO’s “owners” is quite brief and we aren’t always privy to what transaction led him from one person to the next. In some cases this feels like it’s a simple matter of us not being privy to something that the donkey himself didn’t witness, but the film is not always strict about this and there are several places where we are indeed shown things that the animal didn’t witness.
Anyone who knows their film history will pretty quickly recognize this as being heavily inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, which also followed a donkey around as it moved between people, which I think was supposed to be some kind of religious parable. To be perfectly honest, I watched that movie pretty early on in my journey into classic world cinema and I don’t think I ever really “got” it and can’t say I’m a fan. In my defense, that movie also had another high profile hater: Ingmar Bergman. In an interview Bergman once said “I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring” and then elaborated by saying “A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting… I have a completely natural aversion for [animals].” I also seem to have a bit of an aversion to animals and when I see these movies like Andrea Arnold’s Cow which expect me to get a whole lot out of watching a dumb animal walking around I tend not to really connect in the way I think I’m supposed to. And I don’t think EO is exactly an exception to that but this is not to say I hated or even particularly disliked the movie.
I think EO is ultimately supposed to be making a bigger statement about the humans as observed by this donkey than it is about the donkey itself, though some of these messages are a little unclear but the overall picture is plainly negative. In many cases the human misbehavior is rather obvious like when EO is owned by a man who breeds and harvests foxes for their fur or when the donkey becomes a pawn in a struggle between a pair of drunken amateur soccer teams but the movie doesn’t necessarily valorize the “good” people that EO encounters either. From the perspective of the donkey the people who look to pet and coo at him do not necessarily have their “love” reciprocated and they come off as kind of intrusive pests. Similarly, the animal rights people who “free” him from the circus ultimately prove to be rather short-sighted people whose actions end up simply landing him in other more socially accepted jobs for donkeys that are not really in his best interests. The thing is his stay with each of these people are really brief, which on the upside means that the film clocks in at a tight 88 minutes which is probably for the best, but they don’t always build on each other and don’t always have the connective tissue you expect as an audience. So, I guess this movie was an experience that interested me but didn’t really move me, and no matter what it’s always going to live in the shadow of Bresson’s donkey movie so I can’t say it really feels like that singular of an accomplishment to me.
***1/2 out of Five