Director: Jerzy Skolimowski (Poland, Italy). Year of Release: 2022
Darkness, occasionally interrupted by flashing red strobe lights. A woman is dancing with a donkey. As the pair circle each other rapidly, the donkey sinks to the ground. The performance ends, and as the lights go up, we see that they are some sort of stage. The camera pans back to show that they are in a circus.
Magda (stage name Kasandra) loves her donkey Eo (presumably the Polish equivalent of Eeyore, or the noise that a donkey makes). Outside show time, she goes to feed him hay or just give him a big hug. But not all the circus workers are not quite as compassionate. One in particular, uses Eo as a carthorse, whipping the animal whenever it is too slow. After the circus is visited by animal rights protestors angry at the abuse of animals, Eo and a couple of camels are taken away.
The next thing Eo knows, if he’s capable of sentient thought, he’s working with show ponies – elegant horses, which are used for photo shoots. Eo unnerves the horses, in particular a large white one, which starts to get aggressive towards the woman next to him, who is wearing fancy dress and a top hat. In the background, we see Eo fixing him with a hard stare. Meanwhile, the owners of the farm are not minded to pamper a donkey which makes them no profits.
Eo does receive one visit from Magda, sitting pillion on a motor bike driven by a big bloke who is presumably her boyfriend. She offers the donkey a bun, while her bloke impatiently asks if she’s going to be there all night. Initially she stays with Eo, letting the boyfriend drive off into the middle distance. Then she chases and catches up with the bike, gets on the back and rides off. We don’t see her returning to Eo again.
Eo stages a jailbreak, ending up in a donkey sanctuary, where he is petted by a group of kids with learning difficulties. They are possibly the only humans in the film who emerge morally unblemished. But Eo is soon forced to move on, and finds himself in a wood at night full of the green lights of the lasers attached to hunters’ guns. A fox which is just next to Eo gets fatally shot.
Excuse me if I am relating episodes in a different order to the one in which they appear on screen. I’m not intending to, but this is a film full of discrete scenes which have little directly in common, except that humans are (generally) bad and that Eo is (generally) somewhere near what we see on screen. Except when they aren’t and he isn’t. But the general story being told is of an innocent animal stumbling along and being forced to witness the inhumanity of man.
Eo is tethered to a post, only to be let free by a passing ageing anarchist. He wanders over to a local football match and, quite possibly, causes one side to miss a penalty. The winning team adopt Eo as a mascot and take him back to their social centre, which is in a wooden hut. Unfortunately, the hut is later visited by Ultras from the losing team wielding baseball bats. They attack everyone inside, then approach a grazing Eo shouting “there’s the donkey. Let’s fuck it up!”
Eo passes through a couple more scenes before being captured by a gang which is stealing horses to sell as potential salami. They weren’t expecting him to be there, but there must be a market for donkey meat somewhere. Moving on quickly, we view a trucker offering food to a migrant woman. When he clumsily asks for sex she runs away, but his gaucheness does not go unpunished. The trucker is dispatched by robbers who want to steal his lorry.
Eo doesn’t stay tethered in the truck park for too long. He is rescued by a young priest who has run out of petrol and returned to the garage with a jerry can. He unties Eo, telling himself that he isn’t sure whether he is releasing the donkey or stealing it. Apologising for the kilos of salami that he’s eaten in his life, he takes the donkey with him towards the huge house owned by his Countess mother.
Suddenly, the film takes a sudden lurch into a whole new genre. The countess, played by Isabelle Huppert of all people, shouts at her wastrel son in a mixture French and Italian. She reminds him that the house used to belong to him until she bought it up to pay off his gambling debts. Now she’s selling up to go back to France. Whilee she’s screaming at him, she starts tearing down curtains and smashing plates. The donkey is nowhere to be seen.
EO, the film looks spectacular, including a breathtaking scene of dawn breaking over a red sky as the donkey approaches on the horizon. It also sounds great, with effective use of amplification to make us aware of running horses, a single horse rolling in the hay, or the sound of conflicting football players. But when it comes to what the film is trying to say, let alone how effective it is in saying it, I am a little less clear.
As the film closes, we see a prominent statement: “This film was made out of our love for animals and nature. The animals’ well-being on set was always our first priority, and no animals were harmed in the making of this film.” You often see this sort of message in end credits, but this is worded like a mission statement. I felt some similarities with Gunda, another abstract films about animals which looks great but whose message is vague. Like Gunda, EO prefers animals to people.
So what does it all mean? In one sense, it’s the sort of film that means whatever you want it to, but here’s my take. EO, the film, is about human folly, and Eo, the animal, is a creature which is morally superior to the flawed humans in the film. While they do bad (and very occasionally good) things, Eo just looks on, never judging, just standing there as a creature which is incapable of performing good or evil. But then again, it might just be a pretty film about a donkey.