This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.
On paper, an existential Polish remake of a 1960s French arthouse classic about a donkey’s journey might seem intimidating or uninteresting—flat, droll, inaccessible high art—but writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski is a filmmaking wizard, a Swiss army knife of style and technique that knows how to get your attention with creativity and empathy alone. His rate of constantly evolving expression, executed with the taste and tact of a living legend pushing 85, sucks you in. That, and the most loveable lead, EO.
Skolimowski’s contemporary take on Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar stays true to the simple ass-centricity of the original. The plot summary is the same: We follow a donkey through good times and bad. But make no mistake, EO is the wildest donkey film of the fall. Heck, maybe even the whole year. Every second counts. Blink and you might miss a surprise throat cut, lasers bursting through the forest or Isabelle Huppert smashing plates. Where EO (think: Eeyore, or the sound a donkey makes) ends up is as sudden and bewildering to us as it is to him, a paragon in the psychic art of weathering change.
We enter EO’s life amid an abusive stint in entertainment. Skolimowski opens with a bang, thrusting us into the center of a pulsing circus act, inches from the face of EO, collapsed in the dirt during an epileptic flurry of deep red strobes, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) calling him back to consciousness with anguish in her voice. It isn’t long before Polish PETA is protesting the circus and the government reclaims him in the name of animal safety in a moment of both liberation and fear for what awaits. The irony of losing the only one who knew and loved him dissolves into thin air, unnoticed, as he’s loaded onto a trailer.
Perspective is one of the best things about EO. Skolimowski doesn’t show us how things develop or give narrative insight through human relations. We stay at donkey level. Like EO, we’re out of the loop, pushed and pulled every which way, the occasional moment of freedom offering a cathartic bliss that affirms the beauty in autonomy. EO’s not totally helpless—he has a kill count—but he’s close. This is a story about a voiceless, armless, homeless, rights-less lead at the whim of the forces around him. The perspective triggers a flood of empathy and, to Skolimowski’s credit, opens an inner reservoir with the capacity to hold it all.
Next thing you know, EO is chewing on a carrot necklace draped around his neck like a lei, apparently a mascot in a meager small-town celebration he wanders away from. He traipses through ghost towns and lives briefly alongside horses, cows, poachers and farmers at different times. He stumbles upon a soccer match, potentially affects the outcome, and parades through the street with the winners. Later, he’s found by the losing team’s superfans and nearly beaten to death, caught in a sequence of senseless rage riddled with the most devastating words uttered in recent film history memory: “There’s the donkey. Let’s fuck it up!” (A warranted note: Before the credits roll, the screen reads, “This film was made out of our love for animals and nature. The animal’s well-being on set was always our first priority, and no animals were harmed in the making of this film.”)
What next, you wonder? Well, a resurrection montage of ground-level closeups on an AI robot dog bathed in red light, writhing and reeling in the grass to the tune of trippy industrial ambience, of course. EO is innocence incarnate, a pure, blameless, unsuspecting victim around every corner (something you can’t get out of a human character), but he’s not fragile. There’s a near-mechanical will to live, a steely, preternatural sense of survival inside him that won’t give up. EO endures. Skolimowski gets more out of a donkey than most filmmakers get out of a person.
As the AI dog sequence hints, EO is experimental and surreal, but not in a brash, over-your-head, alienating kind of way. If anything, it’s just the opposite. Every moment is innovative or imaginative, as if Skolimowski is spinning a wheel of his favorite tricks and applying them to each section as it lands, the prospect of wedding such varied expressions a challenge in itself. How does one make a donkey walking through a junkyard interesting? Skolimowski attaches the camera to the front of a crane diving head first into a pile of scrap metal, then cuts to a low-level EO tracking shot and leaves the monstrous mechanical sounds high in the mix, the crane looming out of frame over the donkey like a fighter jet unintentionally dropping bombs, establishing the degree to which EO has autonomy, or even awareness.
As a helpless subject, he requires mercy, understanding, patience, love and grace, and you long for him to encounter it. Skolimowski gives the donkey a remarkably human presence, as Bresson once did. He creates a great leveling of existence by giving EO’s life real weight. It’s a feat that seems futile from the outset, but EO only needs a minute to stir up your emotions, and no more than 10 to make you see yourself in the donkey, largely through an impressionist bent. It’s an impressionist film because it must be. All EO can give is impressions. Skolimowski layers in the energetic techniques, various color palettes, crunchy electronica and all other creative stylings to communicate on behalf of EO.
Michael Dymek’s inspired cinematography is paramount in that expression. Extreme close-ups from the front give EO a pitiable, approachable look (almost personable). Shots from above show him in submission to most creatures around him. Shots from the ground give him the size and significance of a fully fleshed character. Varying lenses have all kinds of strange qualities. When EO lives with horses, Dymek transports us from the cold, rattling trailer into an intoxicating dream state—defined by a warped softness around the edges of the frame—running with wild stallions in a field so lush it could be cast in a Malick film. Occasionally, we enter donkeyvision and the warped blur closes in even further on the image to show how gauzy and incomplete EO’s sight is on top of everything else.
Dymek is the complete package, his lens choices as dynamic as the ways he moves the camera. He captures the movement of animals with an unrivaled majesty. He shoots cars driving from behind like PTA did in Phantom Thread, the camera mounted with a wide lens, sitting high in the air, following from behind. He gives EO a stunning black-and-white music video moment. In a series of shots, he plunges us (presumably via drone) into a forest draped in bloody red and black, where the camera zips along the valley creek for 25 thrilling seconds before it barrel-rolls in midair to match the three-pronged solar windmill turning in front of it.
From the opening shot, blood red is established as a motif, a visualization of dream states and the presence of such in reality. The former might look like the robot dog montage or aforementioned forest, while the latter might be a tail light flooding a scene that takes place behind a car or a neon sign in a window. It signals a state of emergency, an imminent, ever-present attempt to endure, despite the cruelty and unfairness of it all, the blood running from EO’s head. And it gives a lightness, in contrast, to the more tender moments between the chaos, shot in broad daylight and gentle sun, like curling up in the hay with calm, giggly children. The contrast between the two captures the ups and downs that define existence, be you donkey or person.
Through EO, Skolimowski offers a fresh perspective on our own frailty, our own getting blown with the wind, through life, pain, death and rebirth in an endless cycle. That’s why it took home the Jury Prize at Cannes, where Skolimowski feverishly thanked the six donkeys that led the film: Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela. (It did not, however, take home the Palme d’Og, the award for best Cannes dog that could’ve made history with its first Palme d’Onkey.)
Perhaps the most transfixing moment of EO is near the end: A single waterfall tracking shot reversed into a hypnotic natural rhythm, the water folding into itself as if to be reborn. EO seems to be getting at the rhythm of life—up, down, happy, sad, joyous, torturous, cyclical, always changing, never fully understood. That’s how we see ourselves most preciously in EO. We’re never in control, even when we think we are.
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Writer: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska
Starring: Sandra Drzymalska, Lorenzo Zurzolo, Mateusz Ko?ciukiewicz, Isabelle Huppert
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.