EO is a donkey, but not just any donkey. EO is a circus performer in an act with Kasandra, his beloved and loving mistress who treats him as a friend. Dark, opening shots in blurred reds and blacks are our first indication that we are seeing the world through his eyes. Kasandra protects him from the roustabouts who only see him as a pack animal, abusing him, whipping him, and overburdening him. But even she is powerless to shield him when the circus is shuttered and he’s loaded in with the other animals and hauled away. Bewildered, he longs for Kasandra as much as she longs for him. Captivity away from the world he knows is disheartening and he will soon begin his journey of escape, capture, and escape.
“EO” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 and that made me smile. Not because I thought this was an assurance that the film was good, but because I thought that finally the prize went to a movie that wouldn’t be a treatise on the existential nature of life. Cannes Film Festival winners are often overly intellectual dissections of existence and, although there have been many that I’ve appreciated over the years, they appeal, at best, to a niche market. Even the rare American film, most recently “The Ladykillers,” a remake by the Coen brothers of a much better movie, to win the prize has not translated to box office success, let alone stood the test of time.
But somehow, director Jerzy Skolimowski, writing with frequent collaborator Ewa Piaskowska, has managed to turn the tale of a simple donkey on the run into a metaphorical vision of the world. And it works at several levels. EO, played by multiple donkeys, all of the Sardinian breed, is a surprisingly dynamic vessel holding the keys to man’s nature. His eyes, deep pools that will remind you of a cherished golden retriever, or in my case a soulful dachshund, are reflections of what you want to see. Whether he is sustaining a beating at the hands of thugs, for no reason other than they could, or the quiet, affectionate grooming by a new friend, he soldiers on. His only destination is away. EO’s journey, interrupted many times, is filmed through his eyes and allows us to view from his perspective. Like the best human actors, EO’s eyes are the windows to his soul. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that EO is showing us his soul because the filming sucks us into the whirlpool of emotion that we project onto him.
So often while you watch, you will be so absorbed that it is startling when you stop and realize that you are EO and he is you. His journey takes many turns, some joyous, some not but that’s for you to discover.
What is truly extraordinary is the photography and lighting. Cinematographer Mychal Dymek has used an immersive approach that views the scenery through EO’s eyes. Dymek has gone beyond the handheld camera and seems to have attached it to EO’s neck, blurring and clarifying the scenery as the donkey slows, trots, or grazes. When he pulls back the camera, placing EO in contrast to the environment, as he does when EO crosses a bridge next to powerfully cascading waterfalls, one feels the impossibility of his voyage to nowhere in particular. His use of filters and angles enhance Skolimowski’s rather dark view of humans when they come into contact with the donkey.
Sandra Drzymalska plays Kasandra with so much compassion that you can feel EO’s loss. The great Isabelle Huppert has a small, unnecessary role, but it’s always a pleasure to watch her. But the real star of this film is the sextet who play EO, Tako, Hola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela, each bringing his or her own spontaneity to their scenes, keeping the crew always on alert for a different interpretation of the filmed action.
I’m not sure I ever imagined that I would be entranced by the meanderings of a donkey. Dialogue is at a minimum and might actually not be necessary because the human actions speak much louder than their words. Skolimowski and Piaskowska have produced a film that takes us on a thoughtful journey that offers much to contemplate about the essence of being. And yes, somehow this movie about a donkey is a treatise on the existential nature of life.
Opening December 2 at the Laemmle Royal and the Los Feliz 3.
Neely Swanson spent most of her professional career in the television industry, almost all of it working for David E. Kelley. In her last full-time position as Executive Vice President of Development, she reviewed writer submissions and targeted content for adaptation. As she has often said, she did book reports for a living. For several years she was a freelance writer for “Written By,” the magazine of the WGA West, and was adjunct faculty at USC in the writing division of the School of Cinematic Arts. Neely has been writing film and television reviews for the “Easy Reader” for more than ten years. Her past reviews can be read on Rotten Tomatoes where she is a tomato-approved critic.