EO: a donkey’s odyssey through the kindness (or not) of strangers

Jerzy Skolimowski, “EO” (2022)

Inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 film “Au hasard Balthazar”, this Polish film follows the adventures of circus donkey EO after the circus where he performs with caretaker Magda (Sandra Drzymalska) is forced by bankruptcy and the protests of animal rights activists to shut down. All the circus animals are taken into care and EO ends up working in a horse stable. There, he sees animals being pampered and allowed to run free while he has to work and pull loads. After he knocks down a shelf filled with trophies, EO is sent to a farm where he is depressed and refuses to eat. Magda comes to visit him one day and wishes for all his dreams to come true. After she leaves the farm, EO tries to follow her and gets lost in the huge birch forests surrounding the farm.

So begins a strange odyssey in which EO views and experiences the full range of human behaviours and actions towards him including kindness from a few people and brutal violence that nearly kills him from others. Through EO’s eyes, ears and experiences, we see how people treat animals that aren’t necessarily glamorous but are often regarded as purely work animals, fit to do the worst jobs and not deserving of care or love. We also see how nature is used and abused by humans: while EO takes children for rides on the farm, trees are being cut down; a bird flies too near wind energy turbines and plummets dead to the ground; and in one incredible scene, EO climbs a bridge overhanging a huge dam through which masses of water cascade and splash into ever-changing fluid geometric patterns. Sub-plots rise but don’t last long and are never fully resolved as EO continues his travels away from where the sub-plots are in action.

The cinematography is often breathtaking as it takes in huge vistas of forests, hills and mountains in Poland through aerial drones. Close-ups reveal EO’s bond with the natural world, so often at the mercy of humans. The use of single-colour (usually red) filters imparts a surreal feel that can knock you off your feet and leave your head spinning. The film-makers are careful not to anthropomorphise EO and do not make assumptions about what he may be feeling – if he feels the way humans do, that is. EO simply appears to observe events around him and to take off and disappear at sometimes opportune moments. At times EO appears upset to see or hear other animals apparently trapped and unable to free themselves: he even brays on seeing fish in an aquarium, not realising of course that goldfish need enclosed watery worlds to survive.

The film is ostensibly a plea to humans to treat animals kindly, yet one of the film’s ironies is that those who give EO his freedom are often the ones who do him a grave disservice. The city council’s decision to shut down the circus cruelly separates Magda and EO, and the donkey is left depressed and unhappy. Another person’s decision to free EO at a much later time results in the donkey being beaten half to death by angry fans of a soccer team that lost a match due to EO braying during penalty shoot-out. Other paradoxes include the juxtaposition of shots of a wind turbine and a shot of a dead bird having fallen to the ground; the connection between wind power stations (supposedly environmentally friendly with few carbon emissions) and the actual environmental havoc they wreak on migrating birds or bats is made unpleasantly blunt.

At 88 minutes, the film is long enough for viewers to get a sense of the apparent randomness in which EO chooses to escape or set himself free: “EO” runs like a series of (not very funny) dark comedy skits, each one pushing EO deeper into the dark end of human behaviour and action. The film’s heartbreaking ending puts a stop to what otherwise might have been a never-ending cycle of mini adventures for EO, though viewers are prepared in advance by a young priest’s conversation with EO about salami made from the meat of animals that are not cattle or sheep. Drzymalska puts in a good performance as Magda who possibly loves EO just a bit too much for their friendship to look merely platonic. A subplot featuring Isabelle Huppert as a wealthy aristocrat and Luca Zurzolo as her stepson / nephew who may also be her lover is intriguing but is left unresolved. EO itself was played by six donkeys, all of whom were allowed to walk or strut at will and never forced to do anything they didn’t want to do: director Skolomowski instead adapted the story here and there to work around the animals’ stubbornness and apparent inability to follow orders or encouragement.

Despite its short length, “EO” is frequently a harrowing film and its conclusion may leave some viewers in deep despair at the cruelty and apparent thoughtlessness of humans in caring for and about domesticated animals like donkeys. Even those with the best intentions for EO treat him or expose him to potential disaster. After the end credits have finished rolling though, viewers may well ask whether Skolimowski did his film and its characters justice by focusing on human cruelty and violence towards animals without questioning how such a situation came about or asking what humans can do to break such a cycle of brutality and violence.