“Eo represents a rare achievement, a fever dream of pictures, entrancing and beguiling, that flicker by rapidly as we the audience, in a communal experience, dream in the cinema with our eyes open.”
Polish octogenarian director Jerzy Skolimowski has had a long and well-respected career, stretching over 7 decades in both Hollywood and Europe, though marked by frequent lengthy breaks – he has only completed 18 feature films during that time. His time away from the grind seems to have inspired him because after a sabbatical of 7 years, he returns in terrific form with Eo – one of the best films of his career. Expectations were already high because, in a vote of confidence, he was invited back to compete in the Cannes competition after a break of 33 years – and he delivers mightily.
Many have erroneously identified Eo as a remake of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). It is inspired by the spirit of that earlier classic and shares a donkey as the protagonist but is otherwise a completely original film set in contemporary times. People have also described Eo as experimental because it is a plotless and almost dialog-less film but we’d venture it actually returns cinema to its truest roots – the more visually-driven silent films of yore.
What narrative there is consists of our leading man – our leading donkey in this case (the gender is never explicitly identified) – being set free from a Polish circus after animal rights protests. What follows is a donkey picaresque – a series of adventures or misadventures – that bring it in contact with different human beings, different settings and often different iterations of man’s cruelty to animals. Highlights include appearing as a show donkey at a village festival, a stint at a stable with some jumpy horses, a tense escape from a gang of hunters that are hunting foxes, a turn as a team mascot at a rowdy local soccer game and a sojourn at an Italian villa.
In this donkey driven film, 4 human characters appear on screen that make an impression. Sandra Drzymalska appears as Eo’s circus co-performer and the human with whom he (we’ll assume it’s a he) forms his deepest relationship. They love each other enough that she comes to visit him from afar and it is him following her back that leads him astray. Mateusz Kościukiewicz plays a grungy, horny truck driver transporting Eo and exits the story in rather unexpected fashion. Then there’s the studly Italian priest (Lorenzo Zurzolo) who loves skiing and gambling and saves Eo from a premature end. He introduces us to the 4th human and the most unexpected character in the film – Isabelle Huppert playing a bored Countess – who has an uncertain relationship with Zurzolo. The human stories don’t always concern Eo but are neatly woven into the overall narrative and at a fleet 86 minutes, the film and its storytelling style do not overstay their welcome.
If having an animal as the lead can be considered experimental then Skolimowski successfully meets the challenge in making him a compelling protagonist worth rooting for. Six separate donkeys play Eo – pretty seamlessly actually – and Skolimowski’s camera is always empathetic, keying us into the emotional state of Eo. Skolimowski resists the urge to overly anthropomorphize Eo – as would be the wont in a Hollywood production – and maintains restraint just as he would if he were directing human actors. This approach makes Eo more relatable and avoids treacly schmaltz that is often inevitable in animal-led films. Certain POV shots replicating Eo’s vision with blurred edges help us identify with the animal.
The film’s greatest achievement lies in its extraordinary direction and image-making. As noted above, with little in the way of dialog or narrative to fill the runtime, the film lives and dies by the strength of its visual storytelling and Skolimowski shows tremendous skill in creating memorable image after memorable image that sweep the film along in a hypnotic rush. The framing of every single shot is storybook perfect. The academy ratio is employed with consummate mastery by cinematographer Michał Dymek. Compositions are always pleasing and the camera is always in the right place, the lighting unimprovable every single time. A nighttime skiing sequence and a voyage through a forest with the image coloured deep red are standouts.
What is it that they put in the water in Poland? Because, on the evidence of other high-profile recent Polish imports like Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018) – both also in the academy ratio though monochrome – Poland is producing some of the most beautiful and striking movies of the past few years. Eo is a cinematic feast to be savoured on the big screen – to better soak in the splendour of its stunning imagery.
Adding immense value is Paweł Mykietyn’s fantastic score. By turns orchestral and electronic, dissonant and melodic, the music creates an aural journey just as potent as the visual one. Sometimes the score replicates the braying of a donkey and sometimes the tinkling of a bell that would be strung around its neck. It is always dramatically well-suited and complements the visuals with stunning fidelity.
As Eo travels from Poland to Italy, so does this film, as a true European production, sprawl across the continent using the best talent in various countries. The film was shot on location in Poland and Italy, has Polish, Italian and French stars and is played in Polish, Italian, French and English. The lasting impact of the film, beyond its solemn foregrounding of the non-human sentient experience, is the power and allure of its unforgettable images. If cinema, in its purest form, is telling a story purely via images, then Eo represents a rare achievement, a fever dream of pictures, entrancing and beguiling, that flicker by rapidly as we the audience, in a communal experience, dream in the cinema with our eyes open.