by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2022: Poland’s Jerzy Skolimowski proves that donkeys do have layers in this trippy, engaging offering inspired by Bresson
Among the films devoted entirely to animal protagonists, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Cannes competition entry Eo [+see also:
film profile] still sticks out a little. It’s not as sad as Andrea Arnold’s Cow [+see also:
film profile], which played on the Croisette only last year, and not as melancholic as Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, which apparently inspired it all. The veteran Polish director’s take on the ever-changing fortunes (and whereabouts) of one donkey is weird and occasionally hilarious, featuring completely bonkers characters led by Isabelle Huppert smashing plates in front of a sexy Italian priest. She probably had a good reason to do so.
It's all strangely involving, although only the humanless scenes are truly touching. It would be interesting to know why all the people Eo meets on his way are so exaggerated and their respective scenes so distorted – maybe that’s how he sees the world. Skolimowski surely seems very interested in switching perspectives and fully commits to it, with the camera going up and down, and just performing magic tricks of its own. But he is also interested in the animal’s thoughts, his memories and his pain.
There is no telling what exactly was going through Skolimowski’s mind when he embarked on this, why he decided to come back to the classic film he has always adored and make it his own, in a way. Where Bresson was using the donkey to talk about people, here, the animal really comes first, however, and – regardless of what they rudely claimed a while back in Shrek – he has layers. Eo can suffer, he can be content, he can be jealous of pretty show-off horses, washed and tended to while he is just standing by.
It’s easy to feel for him, obviously. It always is in these cases, as viewers weep their eyes out recalling the death of Bambi’s mother, yet remain strangely indifferent in real life. But taking a closer look at an animal like that, realising it does have a story, is important. It makes this film an important work, too, furious plate-smashing aside.
Skolimowski has never been the kindest of filmmakers – evil always lurks somewhere in his work. In Eo, there is a bitterness amidst the absurdity, violence among the moments of brief relief. Maybe that’s why the animal just keeps on moving, crossing borders and changing homes. What he is looking for remains unclear – probably the love he once had and then lost, adored but also exploited by a young owner (Sandra Drzymalska, so good in Carlo Sironi’s Sole [+see also:
interview: Carlo Sironi
film profile]). Eo is escaping, but not just because he’s mistreated – he also runs away from the people who treat him well. Or so they think, as this film is not just about human cruelty – it’s about human cluelessness, too, expressed perfectly by one character, walking away with Eo and wondering whether he is “saving him or stealing him away”. He will never know.
Maybe that’s why the wordless scenes hit the hardest. Whenever language appears, the conversations seem superfluous and just odd, not to mention they can cost you your life. It’s true in the case of small-town football fans, incredibly vicious even though there are barely five of them; it’s true in the case of a truck driver (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) whose stupid jokes end up causing him trouble. All these people might think that Eo “is just a donkey”, but at the end of the day, they are the ones looking small. There is something about this film that feels very young, film school-y even, but it’s quite inspiring that instead of delivering safer fare, Skolimowski still feels like playing.
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