“EO” is an odd animal’s life odyssey that takes the point of view of its mute, occasionally-braying title character, a donkey. It’s a picaresque adventure never far from the dark shadow that hangs over domesticated animals in the service of humans.
Mistreatment, abuse and even death are often the grim realities of their short lives.
This Cannes award winner makes for a fine curtain call for its 84 year-old filmmaker, Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski, still best known outside of Poland for his 1982 Polish emigres in Britain drama “Moonlighting.” He and his camera crew take a shot at seeing what a donkey would see, and letting the viewer imagine donkey memories, donkey depression and donkey reasoning as they do.
If 2022 is the year of cute donkeys in the movies, “The Banshees of Inisherin” probably takes the prize for the cutest. But as with that film, “cute” is no guarantee of a happy life, a treasured life or a particularly kid-friendly film, which this most certainly isn’t.
We meet EO in strobing darkness, an attraction of the tiny Cyrk Orion, a Polish circus where he is his co-star Kassandra’s (Sandra Drzymalska) pride and joy. But in between shows under the big top, EO is a draft animal used to haul scrap by a cruel Polish carny struggling to supplement his income.
And then the circus goes bankrupt and the animals are sold off. Just like that, EO’s torn from his performing mistress and packed off, staring out the window of the equine hauler at the thoroughbreds cavorting in vast pastures.
EO has landed in a great situation, or so we think. But all the animals work — horses training for equestrian events and shows day and night, rarely cavorting, mostly confined to a big stable and training facility. One wrong move by EO, who is used for both draft work and calming the skittish show horses, and he’s sent off again — this time to a sanctuary farm/petting zoo where donkey trail rides are part of his duties.
Skolimowski emphasizes several things about domesticated animals’ existence in “EO,” among them the drudgery of routine and the pull of memory. EO still dreams of Kassandra.
Before this tale is done, EO will be rescued from a horse and donkey “meat wagon” and exact revenge on an employee at a fur farm. He will heeHAW at just the right moment to throw a soccer match, and be lauded by one team’s players and brutally abused by the losers.
“EO” has a message, and it’s somewhat bleak and generally told in a decidedly oblique fashion. There is a linear narrative, but it is filled with blips and gaps, as if the donkey doesn’t exactly remember how he ended up in the hands of a murderer or waking up in a large animal veterinary hospital.
Seemingly random images — upside down shots of night skiing — break the spell that this is a donkey’s eye-view of his life and Europe today. A third act spent briefly in the company of Isabella Huppert seems more a distraction than a source of essential truths. Nevertheless, this film is quite affecting and touching at times.
The earlier films this downbeat drama brings to mind are “White God,” a Hungarian drama about a girl separated from her dog, Spielberg’s adaptation of “War Horse,” the Turkish street dog documentary “Stray,” Andrea Arnold’s revelatory and myopic documentary “Cow” or going much further back, Robert Bresson’s donkey’s life tale “Au Hazard Balthazar.”
All of these films, even the ones that allow for sentiment, impress upon us the inconvenient truths about human/animal relationships. Anderson Cooper’s dog may love him, but at the end of the day, this co-dependency cuts both ways only because we insist that it does, until it’s no longer “practical.” And then the relationship, the commitment and even one of the two lives involved ends, or is ended.
Rating: unrated, violence, animal cruelty
Cast: Sandra Drzymalska, Michal Przybyslawski, Lorenzo Zurzolo and Isabelle Huppert
Credits: Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, scripted by Ewa Piaskowska and Jerzy Skolimowski. A Janus Films release.