The human condition is viewed from the eyes of a donkey in EO (not to be confused with Michael Jackson’s Captain EO), an often-stunning journey through a perilous modern Europe from director Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End, Moonlighting) that arrives at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after winning a jury prize in Cannes.
Though the basic outline of EO seems ripped from Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, Skolimowski has a drastically different approach to his story of the titular donkey, named after the sound he makes by a sympathetic Polish circus performer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska).
While Bresson took a matter-of-fact presentation to his story of the donkey, Skolimowski goes in the other direction: EO is filled with lush cinematography, hypnotic music by Pawel Mykietyn (also awarded at Cannes), impressionistic sequences that could have come from a music video, and deadpan reaction shots of the titular creature as he takes in the strange world that surrounds him.
Balthazar was the star of his own story and himself subject to interpretation, but EO is instead a witness: one who absorbs and even himself interprets the strange world that surrounds him.
This is conveyed in an early sequence after EO is “freed” from the circus and the lone human who cares for him. He’s taken to a horse farm to serve as manual labor and watches as the horses are washed, groomed, and trotted out for magazine shoots with models atop their backs. EO, meanwhile, carries a wagon containing the horses’ hay from pen to pen in the stable.
The horses are visions of grace and beauty, catered to by all who surround them, while EO is merely a tool for practical use… until he clumsily knocks over a table, and isn’t even good enough for that.
At another point, EO finds himself on the sidelines of a small-town football match. The losing team blames the donkey for their defeat, while the winning team credits him for victory… and EO, unfortunately, bears the unwanted consequences from both sides.
Bresson was careful not to imbue Balthazar with human emotion, something that Skolimowski does freely and even profoundly here. The camera grazes over EO’s deadpan eyes as he reacts to his surroundings, and the filmmaker heightens the atmosphere with evocative lensing, music, and even effects.
In one memorable sequence that could have been lifted from a children’s horror movie, EO explores a “scary” forest at night complete with shots of hooting owls and crawling spiders, black trees and an orange moonlight sky, and pulsating, haunting soundtrack that briefly takes over the proceedings.
It’s unfair to compare EO to one of the most acclaimed movies in the history of cinema, but the genre of donkey-led films is thin. Skolimowski’s movie may not be an instant classic, but it’s a fascinating and daring feature from the 84-year-old filmmaker that displays more invention and innovation than most films by contemporary directors.