Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, a winding misadventure about a sweet-tempered donkey, inarguably qualifies as an animal’s-eye view of all that’s warm and cruel, comical and arbitrary about human nature. And of the world of animals, which can be so beautiful and terrifying at once. It’s similar to other, more sobering movies about animals, in this way — I’m thinking of recent documentaries like Andrea Arnold’s dairy farm chronicle Cow, or Victor Kossakovsky’s black-and-white, ethically produced Gunda, about a mother pig — only EO, being a work of fiction, has the advantage of whimsy and fabrication. It’s a movie committed to its own sense of play, much like EO himself, who opens the story playing dead during a circus act and earns rapturous applause for his performance. All of this is captured in fitful, effervescent images, a stylistic freedom that dominates the movie from end to end. It’s dreamy, harsh, funny, confronting. The mood of the film swings and pivots like some gleefully disruptive dance pattern. One moment, EO is being loved on by his trainer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), whom he trusts enough to openly mourn when they’re eventually separated from each other. The next, he’s being harassed by her boss. Soon after that, he’s being mobbed by activists demanding that he be set free. Then comes the cost of that freedom. The wheels of this movie are always turning.
Skolimowski, a veteran of the Polish New Wave, is up to no good and reveling at the chance. EO cannot be pinned down. Human whim overdetermines but doesn’t wholly define EO’s life as Skolimowski imagines it, which is evident in the movie’s twisted, at times farcical attitude toward the ritual of cause and effect. A well-intentioned drunk at a recreational football game sets EO loose with the cry “Anarchy rules!”, only for EO to find himself bludgeoned nearly to death by disgruntled members of the opposing team. A misty, moonlit forest at night is suddenly awash in roaming green lasers, like something out of a diamond heist movie, only for shots to ring out, and for EO to stare into the eyes of a stricken wolf that whimpers pathetically as it dies. It’s not all bad. Much of EO veers more toward the delightfully strange; I haven’t mentioned a scene of slow seduction, starring Isabelle Huppert (who truly shows up out of nowhere), that begins with her crashing plates and other family heirlooms to the ground and ends, shockingly, with a kiss.
There’s a politics for us to glean from these moments — ditto to a scene, set in a gas station parking lot, of a jovial truck driver plying a young immigrant woman with food before cracking open a beer and saying, to her horror, “And now sex?” And to a whirling, beautiful shot of a wind turbine that’s capped off by a dead bird falling from the sky. EO tempts us to reduce its worldview down to the chaos and conflict of humanity and its dangerous technologies, on the one hand, and the spiritual integrity of animals, on the other. Certainly the movie makes its case on that front, strikingly so, through images that make a point of tearing at the limits of the film’s realism with scenes that prove witty, beguiling, and moving at the same time. Skolimowski’s achievement is to fashion this tale into a genuine fantasia, a road movie too freewheeling to be contained to any one domain or idea. There’s as much room here for satirical exaggeration as there is for love. Love of animals above all, but of the prickly unpredictability of humans, too, of which there are some good examples on display here. As he makes his way from a circus in Poland — where, perhaps paradoxically, he is loved — to a slaughterhouse in Italy (where he isn’t), EO meets children who garland his neck with carrots like a king; show horses that seem all too aware of the limits imposed on their freedom, even as the ever-expressive EO seems to eye that freedom with envy; humans that want to consign EO to a life of burden, or render him into a mere mascot, or both. The systems of labor and property guiding EO may be, so far as humans are concerned, distant and transactional. But EO himself, with his ever-alert gaze and vibrant expressions, is very much alive, braying loudly with excitement or fear, making sense of the world through eyes that seem to miss nothing.
That gaze is the central axis on which EO delights and pivots. The movie is always subjective, always concerned with EO’s firsthands view of the proceedings. It’s Skolimowski’s varied approach to that subjectivity that makes EO stand out. Sometimes the lensing delivers this world through a filter of hazy, exaggerated distortion, a signal that we’re seeing everything through EO’s eyes. At other times the movie frees itself up from the literalism of a POV, but nevertheless moves toward the eminent dangers or pleasures of a scene with the wary curiosity that we associate with the titular donkey. The movie’s central character was in fact played by six different donkeys. But the expressive, open, alert face that we encounter throughout the film feels singular. We get to know this animal, or feel like we do. We start to feel that we understand its emotions, particularly in its interactions with other animals. At a scene set in a horse stable, EO perks up when a pair of horses seem to grow agitated, resisting the efforts of their trainers. EO, frightened, runs off — knocking over a shelf of trophies in the process. It’s funny. The comedy of EO is in its randomness. But so is the tragedy. Moments that play like punchlines do the double duty of making us both laugh and wince. When EO knocks over the trophies, we laugh at the crash-bang silliness of it, before immediately coming to terms with what we know what must be in store: An error like this can only result in EO being shipped off somewhere else, to meet a fate that we cannot predict.
Skolimowski has openly spoken of his debt to Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar — still the most famous arthouse movie about a donkey. Both films culminate in violence, of a kind, and both movingly portray the love of a young woman and her trusted animal. But Skolimowski’s project is less anchored in the actual symbols of Christian faith (even as its wry moments of human decadence could easily double as depictions of sin, as in Bresson’s movie.) EO shares the distinction, with Bresson’s classic, of being an incredibly moral movie, only far more playful in its approach. Watching it, we have to sit with the idea that we and the world we’ve built play a role in the fates of animals. We have to sit with the idea that they perceive us more than we think, and that we perceive them, in turn, far less than we know. EO is a movie about the pleasure and risk of that perception. That is its moral argument. Understanding EO’s place in the world means learning to confront our own.