EO avoids the simplistic anthropomorphism that has plagued so many recent animal-centric films, and immerses viewers into something entirely more alien.
Pitched as a remake of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO opens with an overhead shot of a young woman performing in a circus ring with a donkey named Eo, the entire scene filtered in an infernal red. From there, the film simply follows Eo as he, like Balthazar before him, changes owners. The reason for the first change, in which he is snatched away from a young woman named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), has something to do with a law preventing animals from taking part in circus performances; very quickly, though it becomes clear that logical connections between scenes are none too instructive for how the film operates.
The past few years have seen a number of animal-centered films — Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda (2020) and Andrea Arnold’s Cow (2021), for example — which rely on a simplistic anthropomorphism, asking us to identify with non-human creatures, but only by rigid analogy with experiences that we can already recognize as human (e.g., motherhood in Gunda, labor exploitation in Cow). Skolimowski’s energies, by contrast, are directed in the extreme opposite direction, asking us to identify with Eo the donkey by immersing us into a world of alien images and sensations, by showing us things we have never seen before: the camera prowling through a space piled up with caged foxes being prepared for the slaughter; a vertiginous approach toward a windmill, the camera then turning with its movements; an upside-down image of a figure skiing in the night.
One scene connects EO to Eadweard Muybridge’s early motion studies; a more contemporary connection might be to the work of Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (2012) in particular, what with that film’s wild surrealist leaps, the conspicuous blurring of its frame’s edges, and the significant role animals and non-human presences play across its runtime. EO’s presentation of its (Polish) human figures is, reportedly, aggressively stereotyped. But while this may understandably be a limitation for some — particularly since Skolimowski has not been based in Poland for decades now — it fits in with the film’s attempts to plunge us, for 86 minutes, into an entirely alien perspective, immersing us into a world that both is and is not our own.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.