EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/Italy)

By Jordan Cronk

When Jerzy Skolimowski cancelled his press commitments at Cannes to promote his new feature, EO, he denied critics and cinephiles an explanation behind the festival’s most mystifying entry. All but engineered to prompt bemusement, the film, a bold, modern-day reimagining of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966),is one whose mysteries are in fact part and parcel of its allure. Indeed, to hear Skolimowski comment on its making or meaning might break the film’s carefully calibrated spell. Few seem more aware of this than the 84-year-old Polish director himself, who did eventually appear at the festival’s closing ceremony to accept the Jury Prize (an award shared with Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, co-directors of The Eight Mountains). But in keeping with his wily nature, Skolimowski used the opportunity not to speak to the curiosity around the film, but instead to add to its oddball mystique. “I would like to thank my donkeys,” he began. “All six of them.”

Skolimowski’s first feature in seven years, EO is the work of a much younger man, the product of a renascent spirit fully indulging the freedom of age and reputation. (There were even rumours that one uninformed jury member legitimately believed it to be the work of a young man.) How else to explain the audacity to update one of cinema’s most sacred texts? Crucially, Skolimowski—alongside his frequent co-writer and producer, Ewa Piaskowska—doesn’t attempt to “remake” Bresson’s masterpiece so much as rework its central conceit for the present day. Key to the film’s power is its unique combination of reverence and daring. “Au hasard Balthazar is the most important film for me, because it’s the only one that really moved me, that touched me deeply,” Skolimowski told Télérama in 2010. In a world that long ago traded innocence for cynicism, it’s somehow appropriate that this most mercurial of directors would come to this project now, at a low point for morale and at a precarious moment for movies; that EO, a formally shapeshifting, frequently wordless eco-parable, even exists feels like some sort of miracle. It was the only film at Cannes I watched twice—not to parse its narrative or thematic particulars but to confirm that I saw what I thought I saw.

EO opens abruptly, with a scene engulfed in strobing red light. From this crimson vortex, a woman and donkey emerge, the latter writhing in apparent agony. “Eo!” she cries out, as the donkey lies prone at her feet. When the lights come up, an appreciative audience is heard, then seen. We’ve been watching a performance, an act—a circus routine to be specific; the donkey is fine. As the first of EO’s many set pieces, this opening is instructive, asking the viewer to consider the well-being of an animal traditionally thought to be of mostly functional value—a beast of burden. As the film proceeds, it poses many similar questions regarding fate, instinct, violence, and (in)humanity. “[Animals are] incapable of faking anything. They quite simply just are,” Skolimowski recently said. As it did in Balthazar, this essential purity sits at the heart of EO, which otherwise forgoes Bresson’s spiritual interests in favour of more pressing social and ecological concerns.

Like its predecessor, EO is told in daisy-chain fashion, as our equine hero is passed from owner to owner and situation to situation, some pleasant and others upsetting. Eo’s time in the circus comes to an end almost immediately when he’s unceremoniously separated from his performance partner, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), by a group of animal-rights protestors whose good intentions get Eo shipped across the Polish countryside, first to an upscale stable for show ponies, and then to a more rural farm where Eo briefly reconnects (on his birthday!) with Kasandra in a touching scene involving a kiss and a carrot muffin. Here and occasionally elsewhere, Skolimowski anthropomorphizes Eo to a degree that courts preciousness, but the consistently bravura filmmaking brings an edge to material that in lesser hands could prove hectoring or overly didactic. Chasing these moments with sequences of pure cinema, Skolimowski and cinematographer Michał Dymek (one of the film’s many fresh-faced technicians, which perhaps accounts for some of its youthful vigour) finds an enrapturing aesthetic analogue to the bittersweet essence of Eo’s journey. Early on, a scene of horses galloping freely through a field has all the majesty of one of Terrence Malick’s soul-stirring montages, while a later passage featuring a rampaging robot dog—a kind of death rattle emanation from Eo’s psyche after being beaten by a group of laddish skinheads—plays like something out of Leos Carax’s digital-age nightmares.

Despite the film’s tragic arc, there’s joy to be had in simply watching it unfold. Witness how Skolimowski gets Eo from predicament to predicament (and, eventually, from Poland to Italy): at one point, he magically jimmies the lock on his cage and trots proudly down the highway; at another, he’s sold off by his handlers after breaking a trophy case; while later, a drunken drifter sets him free in a would-be righteous display of impromptu rebellion (“Anarchy rules!” the man yells as he unties Eo’s constraints). On a number of occasions, the film doesn’t simply adopt Eo’s point of view, but projects visions of his innermost being. Flashbacks to tender moments between Eo and Kasandra manifest in moments of loneliness or distress, and it’s not long before these memories accrue a gravitas that stands at odds with some of the kitschier set pieces, such as when Eo stumbles upon a soccer match and distracts one of the goalies, leading to an on-field brawl, or when Isabelle Huppert randomly turns up as a plate-smashing, possibly incestuous mother of a wayward priest played by Lorenzo Zurzolo. More effective are some of the quieter moments: a beautifully ominous interlude set in the woods in which Eo is surrounded by green lasers from hunters’ rifles, or a scene in which he finds himself wandering Italy’s eerily vacant city streets. (Large portions of the film were shot during the initial pandemic lockdown.) As productively as any recent movie, EO makes an attribute of its imperfections, thrillingly reinventing itself from scene to scene.

Since returning from semi-retirement in 2008 with the intimate nocturne Four Nights with Anna, Skolimowski has charted a fitful course back to prominence, with nominally fashionable takes on both the post-9/11 political thriller (Essential Killing, 2010) and its consciously convoluted urban counterpart (11 Minutes, 2015). EO is something altogether different, though it does emerge at a moment when animal rights-focused filmmaking is at a relatively high level of visibility on the circuit. But where films like Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda (2020) and Andrea Arnold’s Cow (2021) resort to self-righteous sentimentality and manipulative formal devices to convey their message, EO’s themes and ideas operate first and foremost as cinema, through which Skolimowski reflects a wide-ranging topical spectrum unbeholden to any one issue. (In that sense, it would make for a more appropriate double bill with something like Bong Joon-ho’s Okja [2017], rather than any issue-driven documentary.) Less symbol than symptom, Eo’s plight speaks to larger social and environmental ills—nationalism, climate change, deforestation—stretching far beyond Poland and Italy. If Au hasard Balthazar is, as Godard once proclaimed, “The world in an hour and a half,” then EO is a vision of what that world might resemble in the future given our current rate of neglect and inaction. It’s a film that doesn’t look back so much as point the way forward.

jcronk@cinema-scope.com Cronk Jordan