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Receiving its British premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival and joint winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO is a vividly realised homage to Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and an original work in its own right. On its journey through life, a donkey with melancholic eyes and a fondness for carrots experiences joy and pain, with the wheel of fortune randomly turning his luck into disaster and his despair into unexpected bliss. The latest collaboration between Polish director Skolimowski (The Shout) and his veteran producer Jeremy Thomas, EO is a distinctive and ultimately poignant work. Brilliantly shot by Michal Dymek and featuring immersive sound design, the drama ponders the follies of humanity while never resorting to sermonising. Interspersed with moments of bracing surrealism, EO reminds us not only of the need for humility, but also of Skolimowski’s immense contribution to world cinema.
Jason Wood, BFI Executive Director of Public Programme and Audiences
An 86-minute spin-dryer of sound and image, EO is an animal rights rallying cry, a bizarre donkey’s-eye-view art film, and one other thing: a loose retelling of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au hasard Balthasar. Even for elderly Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski, responsible for the stylishly zoned-out, subversive Deep End (1970) and a handful of other innovative films over the intervening years, that’s a tall order. Au hasard Balthasar was a film that Jean Luc-Godard once described as ‘containing the world in an hour and a half’.
Yet right from the opening frames of EO we understand this is not an attempt to restage Bresson’s religious allegory of human cruelty and salvation. It opens with strobing red lights over a staged circus performance, one where a young woman (Sandra Dryzmalska) stands over a donkey on its back. With its four hooves in the air, she pretends to resurrect it as it jumps to its feet on cue. It’s an immediate distinction from the stark, clean simplicity of Bresson’s work, and perhaps all the better for it: Skolimowski’s free-floating camera, red filters and abrupt perspective switches all suggest a bold aesthetic of its own making rather than a likely ill-fated attempt to mimic a classic.
What EO shares with Balthasar are the most basic parts of its DNA: the story of a humble donkey who is separated from a young woman who dotes on him, unwillingly sent on an odyssey from owner to owner, facility to farm, kindness to savagery. We soon learn that EO – a soft-muzzled grey circus donkey – was actually rather content and protected by his handler.
His journey begins when he is forced into relocation after animal-rights activists picket the circus. (The egotism of the well-intentioned is a frequent theme here: even the humans who mean well are too alienated from the natural world to truly protect it.) The mule gets lost – or runs away – from the farm he is taken to, showing real agency when he wishes to escape; he wanders the woods at night in a surreal, fairy-tale-like sequence. The film switches to EO’s own perspective at points as he watches lonely frogs leap through trickling streams, his affinity for his fellow animals shown in sharp relief to smoke-billowing power plants, ugly industrialism and busy highways encroaching on the natural world. From lonely country roads to city streets, football pitches to the Italian countryside, EO’s long journey across Europe reveals the rotten heart of its modernity, contrasted with the tender innocence of this animal.
The camerawork sometimes seems to be omniscient as it flips upside down, snakes over mountains and rivers and dwarfs its sweet little mule against the roaring power of man-made dams or hunting-rifle lasers. Cockeyed, beautiful and sensitive even in its depiction of occasional animal cruelty, it has a cumulative effect that borders on the hypnotic. Its one visual homage to Bresson occurs in tight close-up on EO’s large, liquid brown eyes, an effect that remains as haunting as ever.
This is a film which concerns itself with nebulous and wide-reaching subjects, never exactly didactic but also never unclear about its aims as a dressing-down of European greed and indifference to suffering. Through its various episodes, it highlights the exploitation of the weak and the innocent, from a Polish trucker attempting to sexually assault a starving migrant worker to the carnivorous, leather- and fur-wearing indifference of the various characters who drift into the story. In a heart-wrenching segment, EO meets hooligan football fans whose tribalism and violence nearly get him killed. But it is more often human myopia that does damage: we are a drain on the pastoral, natural world. And who can blame Skolimowski, at 84, for thinking so? EO himself is always on the side of his fellow occupants of a simpler, older world; at one point, he kicks a mink-farm worker square in the forehead. This can verge on the comic or even goofy – yet the visual experimentation and narrative unpredictability are constantly engaging.
Even for those of us who have the narrative of Bresson’s more spiritual film imprinted on our memories, EO is never obvious about where it’s heading, maybe because its protagonist doesn’t know either. The film can be unwieldy, cartoonish and head-scratching. And yet it is bold in a way few contemporary films truly are, and its culmination of sound and image before the final cut to black is like a fist closing around your heart.
Christina Newland, Sight and Sound (bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound), 23 May 2022
Jerzy Skolimowski on ‘EO’
Several decades ago, I said in an interview (I think it was Cahiers du Cinéma) that the only film that moved me to tears was [Bresson’s] Au hasard Balthazar (1966). I think I discovered it shortly after its release. Since then, I haven’t shed a single tear at the cinema. Thus, what I owe to Robert Bresson is to have acquired the strong conviction that making an animal a character in the film is not only possible but can also be a source of emotion.
I wanted above all to make an emotional film, to base the narration on emotions, much more than in any of my previous films.
Directors use intellectual arguments and emotional language to provoke actors to deliver the desired effect. With my donkey, the only way to persuade him to do anything was with tenderness: words whispered in his ear and a few friendly caresses. Raising your voice, showing impatience or nervousness would have been the fastest path to disaster. Donkeys don’t know what ‘acting’ is, they can’t pretend anything – they simply ARE. They are gentle, caring, respectful, polite, and loyal. They live to the fullest in the present moment. They never show narcissism. They do not skimp on the supposed intentions of their character; and never discuss their director’s vision. They are excellent actors.
When the breeder showed me the photos of the available donkeys, I immediately liked those of the Sardinian breed. I knew EO must be grey with white spots around the eyes. I went to a stable near Warsaw to visit the animal that had seduced me the most in the photos. His name was Tako. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was going to be the star of my movie.
A second casting was then carried out to find him the best possible doubles. We used 6 donkeys in total: Tako, Hola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela.
Directed by: Jerzy Skolimowski
©: Skopia Film, Alien Films, Warmia-Masuria Film Fund/Centre for Education and Cultural Initiatives in Olsztyn, Podkarpackie Regional Film Fund, Strefa Kultury Wrocław, Polwell, Moderator Inwestycje, Veilo A
A Skopia Film production
Co-produced by: Alien Films Srl
In co-production with: Polwell Sp. z o.o.
Production Companies: Moderator Inwestycje Sp. z o.o., Veilo Ewa Żyłka, Podkarpackie Film Commission
Co-produced by: Wojewódzki Dom Kultury w Rzeszowie, Podkarpackie Regional Film Fund
Funded by : Podkarpackie Region and the City of Rzeszów
Realised with the support of : Regione Lazio - Fondo regionale per il cinema e l’audiovisivo
In association with: Ares
A Polish Film Institute co-financed production Executive Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Produced by: Eva Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski
Script Supervisors: Renata Gałuszka, Barbara Omyła
Casting Director: Paulina Krajnik
Casting Director Italy: Jorgelina Pochintesta
Screenplay by: Eva Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski
Director of Photography: Michal Dymek
Additional Directors of Photography: Pawel Edelman, Michał Englert
Stills: Aneta Gębska, Filip Gebski, Łukasz Bąk
Edited by: Agnieszka Glinska
Production Designer: Miroslaw ‘Mietek’ Koncewicz
Production Designer Italy: Katarzyna Lewinska
Set Decorators: Robert Dyrcz, Kamila Grzybowska-Sosnowska
Make-up Artists: Aleksandra Dutkiewicz, Weronika Zielińs
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Music Orchestra: Sinfonia Varsovia
Music Supervisor: Pawel Juzwuk
Sound Design: Radoslaw Ochnio
Sound Mixers: Marcin Matlak, Michal Walczyński
Sound Mixer Italy: Azzurra Stirpe
Sound Mixer Sicily: Michal Matlak
Re-recording Mixer: Pawel Jazwiecki
Stunt Co-ordinator: Tomasz Lewandowski
Sandra Drzymalska (Kasandra)
Lorenzo Zurzolo (Vito)
Mateusz Kosciukiewicz (Mateo)
Isabelle Huppert (countess)
Tomasz Organek (Ziom)
Lolita Chammah (Dora)
Agata Sasinowska (Kaja)
Anna Rokita (Dorota)
Michal Przybysławski (Zenek)
Gloria Iradukunda (Zea)
Piotr Szaja (stableman)
Aleksander Janiszewski (bailiff)
Delfina Wilkońska (animal rights activist)
Andrzej Szeremeta (vet)
Wojciech Andrzejuk (hooligan 1)
Mateusz Murański (hooligan 2)
Marcin Drabicki (Jan)
Maciej Stępniak (Wasyl)
Fernando Junior Gomes da Silva (assassin)
Krzysztof Karczmarz (Dyspensa’s trainer)
Waldemar Barwinski (vet II)
Saverio Fabbri (animal trader)
Katarzyna Russ (bartender)
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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