After missing this movie at New York Film Festival, I’m excited to have finally seen Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest feature, especially after EO was recently nominated for Best International Feature Film. It’s a modern take on Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), similarly focused around a donkey escaping captivity, encountering the world and all its problems along his travels. Sadly, I think this film has issues similar to Bresson’s. Despite at-times successful attempts at placing viewers within the donkey’s perspective, I still don’t think EO really captures the animal outside of a human-centric framework. At many points, it feels more about the people around EO, or what’s happening to him, than the donkey himself, which turns the animal into more of a symbol than a living being.
For me, the movie was at its most compelling when it wasn’t caught in the trappings of plot. I could have watched EO trek through the woods, or the abandoned streets of a small town, braying at pet store windows, for 90 minutes. It would’ve been more satisfying than when the film would force emotion, having the donkey brave a series of encounters with misguided humans. These moments break the film into a series of disjointed vignettes, and there’s no real way to connect it all other than the animal’s suffering. I had a similar issue watching Bresson’s film and its reliance on cruelty against the donkey. Along with this, the forced sentimentality made it hard to stay immersed in the story. By the end it’s verging on a kind of campiness, with EO taking on an almost saintly, Christ-like role. I wish the filmmaker trusted the cinematography more, and relied less on trying to force a plot that, for me, didn’t work for this type of movie.
Skolimowski uses expressive cinematography and intimate sound design to represent EO’s inner-world, but all this great work is undone any time the story breaks to follow one of the human characters along their respective journeys. In these moments, it becomes clear this movie isn’t about the donkey, but is rather about everyone around him, and what they do to him. In this way, I don’t think Skolimowski’s work differs from the Bresson film he’s responding to. Both use animals as stand-ins for a savior/martyr trope. Thankfully, EO doesn’t treat its donkey as cruelly as Balthazar (we’re assured at the film’s end that no animals were harmed during its making), but I still think it’s all for naught, given the human’s centrality in what is supposed to be a donkey’s story. It reflects humanity’s deep inability to understand the world beyond ourselves and the damage we cause which, in a time of looming climate crisis, is harrowing.
That being said, there are some incredibly evocative moments throughout the film. While some have not been fans of the film’s use of strobing neon red lights, I actually think it was a great way to engage the sensorial and bring us closer to EO. This tactile quality of the movie is furthered by the sound design focusing on his breathing, blades of grass moving with the wind, all placing viewers that much farther into EO’s world. The donkey’s role in this film is obviously central, but as we watch him be beaten by soccer hooligans, sometimes disappearing from the screen for several minutes at a time, we’re left to wonder what was the purpose of his character. Is it to represent connection and tranquility in a world that’s been rendered chaotic and harmful by capitalism? Maybe—and I can see a love of animals at the core of this movie; but I wish the film avoided this moralizing, focusing less on transforming EO into a savior symbol, and instead been more intent on capturing the world through his eyes. Perhaps the failure to do this reflects an issue with the film’s politics, which is a shame because it’s so well-crafted.
Paweł Mykietyn’s music is incredible, never telling viewers how to feel while still accentuating all the emotions we see onscreen. It’s a score that’ll break your heart in some moments, yet leave you immersed in the film. I wish the script had followed suit. There are a few scenes where I felt as though the writing too sentimental, such as when EO and his owner are reunited only to be broken apart in a matter of minutes. Instead of these heavy-handed plays at emotion, I wish the screenwriter would’ve just let us feel what was onscreen without all the set dressing. While it failed to center EO as the main focus of the film, I still think Skolimowski’s movie is far ahead of Bresson’s both in terms of how the donkey is treated, as well as the lengths he goes to building a sympathetic frame of mind toward the animal. But despite all the good work the filmmaker did, his overemphasis on humanity’s role in the story ultimately leaves viewers feeling unfulfilled, listless, a bit like the donkey.