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Film Review: EO

★★★★☆ Inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest is a darkly comic and moving fable about a wayward donkey living through fate’s tender mercies. EO is at once a cinematic curiosity, a compelling drama and a harrowing portrait of cruel whimsy.

★★★★☆

Inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest is a darkly comic and moving fable about a wayward donkey living through fate’s tender mercies. EO is at once a cinematic curiosity, a compelling drama and a harrowing portrait of cruel whimsy.

We are first introduced to the eponymous equine as he performs as part of the circus act where he has presumably spent most of his life. It’s a stressful sequence, all red strobing lights – a motif that will repeat itself throughout the film – direful music and disorienting extreme close ups of Eo the donkey. One might expect it to be distressing for Eo, too, though for a species known for its melancholy aspect, the singular emotion we detect is the intense bond he has developed for his trainer, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). But after animal activists force the circus to give up their prize beast, he is shipped off and the pair are separated, thus beginning Eo’s picaresque series of tribulations and adventures as the world’s unluckiest donkey.

The dedication at the end of Eo seeks to reassure viewers that the intention was to celebrate the filmmakers’ love of animals – and of course that none of the many featured animals of the film were harmed in its making. Naturally this is indeed reassuring but, as with Bresson’s 1966 classic, Eo is not really about a donkey, but humanity’s various capacity for kindness, carelessness and cruelty when met with vulnerability and innocence. No prizes for guessing which of these wins out in the end. But where Au Hasard Balthasar was defined by its ascetic naturalism, Eo is almost baroque in its formal qualities, with a bittersweet emotive score from Pawel Mykietyn. Michal Dymek’s surrealist cinematography, liberally employing double exposures and primary colour motifs, pushes us deeper into interior donkey psychology than any film before it. That in itself is surely an achievement of note.

The human characters that Eo encounters are as depraved and small as they come – Nazi football hooligans, fur farmers, a feckless rich kid having an affair with his stepmother. A parade of malformed mediocrities meet not the eye of harsh judgement, but the unknowing gaze of innocence, and through that innocence the stink of their sin is all the more exposed. Meanwhile, the symbolism that connects Christ and donkeys is not lost.

It is no coincidence, then, that one of the final people that Eo meets on his journey is a priest. Eo himself is a contradiction: a being of pure unknowing innocence he is not without agency, breaking his bonds time and again, seeking reunification with Kasandra (Mother Mary, perhaps?). If we follow this analogy to its natural conclusion, it’s not hard to see where Eo’s journey ends, yet so there is much more to Skolimowski’s film than obvious biblical metaphors. A curious, and curiously moving film, Eo is undoubtedly this year’s best picture starring a donkey.

Christopher Machell