London 2022

EO review – familiar but often stunning riff on Au Hasard Balthazar

Jerzy Skolimowski's experimental reworking of Robert Bresson's classic occasionally falls back on well-worn tropes but remains bold

There is reason to be sceptical whenever an (usually male) auteur seeks to make “their Robert Bresson film,” and similar worries accompany EO, the Au Hasard Balthazar-inspired donkey film which won the Cannes Jury Prize this May. Perpetuating the auteural myth is one thing, but the biggest danger lies in blurring the line between tribute and self-expression to such an extent that you end up with a film that seems largely unnecessary.

Polish veteran director Jerzy Skolimowski has had a successful and wide-ranging career thus far, yet it has been seven years since his last, Eleven Minutes, premiered at Venice. EO seems like yet another gamble for a filmmaker who’s worked across themes and genres but the idea of adapting Balthazar, one of the landmarks of French cinema, seems rather daring. Amidst a rich history of animal-led fiction films, the fate of EO seems undecided: will it fall back into familiar tropes of either cuddliness or cruelty, or would it imbue Bresson’s tale of a donkey as both a mirror and a victim to humanity’s decrepitness?

The answer is, a bit of both. The film’s very beginning sets the beat for a surprisingly experimental take, unlike the French master’s chaste aesthetic – a hypnotic strobing light show offers glimpses of a donkey and a woman centre-stage – their performance is, apparently, the biggest asset of this circus. The role of Kasandra is played by Sandra Drzymalska whose gentleness is never found again in the film, as EO (the donkey) is taken away by the animal rights watchdogs, to only end up in the hands of abusers not long after. Skolimowski’s film follows the themes tackled by Bresson, but his version of every donkey-hostage situation manages to top its predecessor. In this way, the plot feels looser and looser, and its logic – unhinged. And thankfully so.

Not to spoil the hardships of our main asinine protagonist, but do watch out for two cameos in particular: the first one is Polish actor Mateusz Kościukiewicz (Face) whose tender naïveté comes as a treat, and the second, grande dame Isabelle Huppert in one of her trademark subversive appearances. Aside from the six stand-ins for donkey EO (Marietta, Taco, Holla, Hettore, Rocco, and Maya), Skolimowski brings together some of the brightest young talent in contemporary Polish cinema. With cinematographer Michał Dymek (Wolf, Sweat), editor Agnieszka Glińska (Lamb), and composer Paweł Mykietyn (The Other Lamb) to assemble a style which is truly contemporary in the way it pushes against stereotypical representations of both animals and the patriarchal world itself.

While the decision to retain EO as an animal metaphor for the atrocities of humans holds some of the film’s potential back, overall it’s a truly commendable effort on behalf of the 84-year-old director to use his prominence to craft a bold and often stunning vision out of a film we already know so well.

EO was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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