THE STORY – Follows a donkey who encounters on his journeys good and bad people, experiences joy and pain, exploring a vision of modern Europe through his eyes.
THE CAST – Sandra Dryzmalska, Isabelle Huppert, Lorenzo Zurzolo & Mateusz Kosciukiewicz
THE TEAM – Jerzy Skolimowski (Director/Writer) & Ewa Piaskowska (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 86 Minutes
When accepting his award for the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, 84-year-old director Jerzy Skolimowski dedicated his latest film, “EO,” to the donkeys he used during production. The film also clocks in at a short runtime of only 86 minutes, but that’s all that is needed to complete a story layered with nuanced discussion on the topic of humanity’s cruelty. With this film bringing Skolimowski his first prize at the Cannes Film Festival since “Moonlighting” in 1982, the curiosity has been peaked on how good a film focusing on a donkey can be in 2022. It turns out, through the use of modern cinematic techniques and a compassionate eye for storytelling, it can be really good.
An experimental telling of Robert Bresson’s classic “Au Hasard Balthazar” from 1966, “EO” follows the titular donkey as he is freed from a circus in central Poland and travels across Europe. While his circus performer companion Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) tries to deal with the loss of her donkey, EO travels across Europe and meets a wide variety of characters along the way. Told in segmented stories, we experience the donkey’s encounters with a metalhead lorry driver trying to find a hook-up at the gas station as well as a pair of rival football teams clashing at a match. There is no destination for EO, as the film’s purpose is to go on the journey and live in the shoes of a lonely animal in today’s harsh landscape.
“Au Hasard Balthazar” follows a baby donkey at the start of its life. In “EO,” the film opens with the young donkey on stage with Kasandra. He already has a name and has lived a portion of his life. While critics made statements about how “Bresson never attempts to humanize Balthazar,” Skolimowski is not afraid to immediately make the audience connect to EO from the opening shot. It is said that it is harder to see animals go through torture when they have an identity, which is the precise tactic Skolimowski uses here to tug at our heartstrings. Nothing is done to portray EO as more than just a donkey, avoiding the clichés of voice-over narration or over-exaggerated movements which would take us out of the movie. Instead, Skolimowski trusts the natural presence of the donkey and the direction of the film will create the desired emotional impact. It’s all the more remarkable that no visual effects were used to create the donkey in today’s cinematic landscape providing us with an even deeper, more meaningful experience.
When people talk about animal cruelty, a major talking point leads to the treatment of animals in show business. Many animal rights activists consider the display of animals in circuses to be a brutal and outdated practice that should immediately be stopped. The opening of “EO” shows the donkey alongside his companion Kasandra on stage, already an act at the circus. However, when a group of activists campaign for the animals to be made free, it creates an emotional arc between EO and Kasandra. While it may seem like freeing EO would be the right thing to do ethically, it is made clear that Kasandra did care about her animal partner and didn’t want to see him go. Not only that, but with little attention or care given to EO after the separation of the circus, there are other issues that need to be addressed regarding the handling of animals elsewhere. The film presents a different perspective on a nuanced and vital conversation that will be discussed for many years to come.
Certain aspects of “EO” may turn some viewers off, one of which is its disjointed narrative style. There is no cohesive story as the circus plotline is seemingly wrapped up in the first act. Instead, the film keeps the camera on EO as he goes on an unpredictable journey across Europe, meeting some interesting characters along the way. None of these characters are particularly fleshed out, as they only appear in fleeting moments to help navigate the donkey to its next destination. However, these characters show a lack of care and respect for the wildlife around them, with EO facing more abuse and trauma the longer the film goes on. The central theme of animal cruelty may seem simple in concept. Yet, this segmented storytelling style can highlight different elements of the subject matter that we may not have considered initially.
The reason why “EO” is so effective is because of the film’s direction and the editing. Film Editor Agnieszka Glinska, who previously worked on “Lamb” last year, takes risks throughout the film with the sharp edits and bold color timing choices. The opening sequence gives a remarkable look at the tone to expect throughout the rest of the film, with bright red lights flashing for short periods of time. It can be jarring to see the quick cuts and bold lighting choices blend with a more traditional filmmaking style, yet they come together to showcase the horror of the situation and how fast it can escalate. More time could’ve been allotted to sequences that link the separate stories together or to Kasandra’s storyline. A longer runtime would have also allowed the film to breathe better, as there is so much going on stylistically that the direction can feel overwhelming at times.
In what is perhaps the shortest and most abstract film from this year’s Cannes Film Festival line-up, it would be hard to believe that an 84-year-old man directed it. There is a youthful spirit to the filmmaking, propped up by kinetic energy in the editing as well as a subject matter that is relevant to today’s current climate. The discussion around animal cruelty seems like a conversation that should be easy, but “EO” showcases the more harrowing moments that come after an apparent success and present a vicious truth that is hard to digest. The tonal imbalance between drama and horror may not work for everyone. Still, Skolimowski’s direction only helps to elevate the film’s horrific message with powerful effectiveness, making “EO” a captivating and essential experience.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The opening sequence is bold and sets the audience up for Jerzy Skolimowski’s striking direction. It focuses on issues surrounding animal cruelty through numerous perspectives and events, with some scenes highlighting aspects that viewers may not have considered regarding the subject matter.
THE BAD – The changes in direction from drama to horror are very sudden, causing a tonal imbalance. The lack of plot or character development may hinder some viewers from connecting with the story and the challenging subject matter.
THE OSCARS –
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10