April 2023

Arts & Letters

Donkey gong: Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘EO’

By Shane Danielsen
The venerable Polish director’s latest film follows a donkey on a moving yet unsentimental journey

Jerzy Skolimowski is 84, an age when most creative artists are either deep into a long creative decline, retired or dead. Instead, a decade and a half into the improbable second act of an illustrious career, he’s created one of his boldest and most accomplished works, a film whose energy, intelligence and ferocity would be remarkable in someone half his age. And remarkably, it’s also his most popular movie, beloved by critics and punters alike.

I resisted seeing EO at its premiere in Cannes last May because I’d heard that it was a remake of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar, and why would I want to see that? Why would the world even need that? One of the greatest movies ever made, it offers a transcendent vision of grace and redemption, culminating in one of the most moving final shots in cinema. I knew Skolimowski was a fan, having remembered him saying once it was the only film that had ever made him cry (“Never before, and never after”). So, what did he possibly have to gain, essaying his own version?

By the time I learnt that it wasn’t simply a remake, that he had instead done his own extraordinary, utterly singular thing, the screenings were over. The film went on to win the Jury Prize. I waited. Months passed, with various friends telling me how incredible EO was and asking why hadn’t I seen it. I gritted my teeth, and waited. Finally, on a rainy day last November, I got the chance to watch it for myself. I left the cinema 85 minutes later with my head down, my eyes fixed on my feet as I walked hurriedly to my car. Anxious to talk to no one, to be disturbed by nothing, to live for a few moments longer in the sad and rapturous thing I had just watched, whose final moments had moved me as much as Bresson’s, though in quite a different way.

EO is the name of a donkey (think Eeyore), who as the film begins is a performer in a small travelling circus under the guidance of his doting trainer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). He seems content with this life, but then the troupe is ambushed one day by some animal-rights advocates, who decry EO’s exploitation (“Can’t you see he’s suffering?”) and demand he be released. These good intentions, ironically, end the only happiness this poor beast will ever know; despite Kasandra’s tearful pleas, he’s loaded into a truck and driven away.

Thereafter, EO’s life becomes itinerant and uncertain. He’s sold, transported, bartered. He escapes and is recaptured. He spooks a horse, becomes a mascot, casually destroys an entire cabinet full of trophies. (It should be noted that EO’s comic timing is impeccable.) He’s even reunited – briefly, unexpectedly – with Kasandra, now for some reason called Magda, only for her to abandon him. Later, alone once more, he trots slowly through a derelict graveyard in a forest (given the Hebrew inscriptions on the tombstones, we might wonder briefly if the donkey is actually following the course of 20th-century Polish history). Finally, he crosses the mountains into Italy, like many a weary partisan before him, until at last, in a final sequence of dizzying, bravura power, he meets his fate.

From Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010), to Carlos Casas’s Cemetery (2019) and Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda (2020), there’s been a small but noteworthy movement in recent cinema to depict the lives of animals without embellishment, without feeling the need either to anthropomorphise or “explain” them. What these films have in common – apart from a Job-like patience on the part of their makers – is the quizzical strangeness of their tone: they often seem closer to science fiction than to nature documentary. Perhaps for this reason, it’s hard not to be reminded of Wittgenstein’s famous adage, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” (Because language is a product of cognition, which in turn is informed by subjective experience. And humans’ and animals’ experiences of the world are so wildly divergent – and so frequently at odds – that we lack any semblance of a shared sense of context. According to Wittgenstein, an elephant’s or a racoon’s consciousness, even were they capable of describing it to us, would thus remain inexplicable.)

Skolimowski clearly shares this opinion, and he illustrates this distance, paradoxically, by getting nearer to his subject, using extreme close-ups to reveal the glossy darkness of a pupil, filling almost the entire screen, or the stiff yield and spring of fur as it is stroked. The tactility of these images enhances our sense of EO as an actual living creature – no CGI here, folks. But they also reinforce his status as an animal, a sentient, autonomous being whose imperatives remain remote and ultimately unknowable. It’s a brilliantly counterintuitive display of technique. Close-ups are typically used to build empathy, bringing the viewer into intimate communion with the subject. These, however, do precisely the opposite, amplifying the separate-ness, the fundamental otherness of this small, furry creature.

Above all, however, EO is a wanderer, and, in this sense, he is absolutely and undeniably a Skolimowski protagonist. From the very beginning, the director’s films have been populated by people either uprooted from or restless in their native environments. The reasons for this are not exactly hard to discern. Born in Poland in 1938, he was raised amid violence and devastation. His father, an architect, was executed by the Nazis for his work with the Polish Resistance. After the war, his mother became the cultural attaché of the Polish embassy in Prague, where the young Skolimowski went to school with future filmmakers Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer.

Returning home, he befriended the composer Krzysztof Komeda, and through him met other members of the so-called “young and angry” generation of writers and artists – notably, actor Zbigniew Cybulski and film student Roman Polanski. In late 1959, aged 20 and with a brace of published stories and poems to his name, he co-wrote the screenplay (with the then-50-year-old novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski) for Innocent Sorcerers, director Andrzej Wajda’s jazz-inflected study of youth culture in Poland. Two years later Skolimowski scripted Polanski’s debut feature, 1962’s Knife in the Water

As first credits go, these take some beating – the former is one of the defining works of postwar Eastern European cinema, the latter one of the most renowned debuts in film history. By then he’d been accepted into the Polish national film school, in Łódź, his home town, but reportedly became impatient with the structure of the curriculum. He just wanted to make a feature, and purposefully shot his class exercises in such a way that they could later be cut together to form just that. The result was Identification Marks: None (1965), in which he also appeared as Andrzej Leszczyc, an alter ego who would appear in two further films, Walkover – a companion-piece made the same year – and the bitterly political Hands Up!, shot in 1967 but banned by the Polish authorities for 18 years.

By now a thorn in the side of the country’s censors, Skolimowski was “invited” to leave Poland. He went first to Belgium, where he made Le départ (1967) with Jean-Pierre Léaud, very much in the anarchic spirit of Jean-Luc Godard, and then followed Polanski to London, where he shot the brilliant, discomfiting Deep End (1970) with Jane Asher. Other films followed, in a variety of locales and styles – my favourite being another UK production, 1982’s Moonlighting, a small, bittersweet film about a group of Polish exiles working as builders’ labourers in Britain while, back home, the Solidarity movement transforms their homeland. He conceived the idea in December 1981, wrote the script in four days, and had it ready for Cannes the following May. 

All these were original screenplays; a gifted and idiosyncratic writer, he excelled at making the personal seem universal. His literary adaptations, however, proved more uneven. I admire Nabokov’s novel King, Queen, Knave, but can’t claim to love Skolimowski’s 1972 version of it, notable these days mostly for the surreal pairing of David Niven with Gina Lollobrigida. (For what it’s worth, the director agrees, having described the film as the worst of his career.) Nor do I rate 1991’s Ferdydurke, but that’s to be expected: Witold Gombrowicz’s book almost categorically resists interpretation, much less adaptation. But The Shout (1978), based on a story by Robert Graves, and starring Alan Bates and John Hurt, is extraordinary – a genuinely frightening supernatural drama, about the clash between English gentility and pagan belief, it ranks as one of his finest works.

The critical and commercial failure of Ferdydurke seemed to depress him; for a while he abandoned filmmaking to paint. He wasn’t entirely absent from the screen, popping up to play Naomi Watts’ Russian uncle in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and to interrogate Black Widow in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. He was always a charismatic actor, a powerful physical presence whose blunt features and large hands suggest the boxer he’d been in his youth. Still, when he returned with Four Nights with Anna in 2008, it came as a surprise – many had believed his retirement definitive. He followed that two years later with Essential Killing, a desert-set survival thriller with Vincent Gallo, and, in 2015, with 11 Minutes, a Rube Goldberg–like display of directorial virtuosity set in contemporary Warsaw, and a film that felt, unusually for him, like an exercise – all technique and no heart.

EO is something else, more urgent and more personal. It feels of a piece with his earliest features, and marks his return to full artistic strength, to the young filmmaker who, for a brief moment in the mid 1960s, seemed poised to challenge Godard as the public face of the European New Wave. 

Considered purely on a sensory level, it’s an extraordinarily vivid experience. The titular donkey may be a placid, passive creature, but the film enclosing it is the opposite: jagged, frequently discordant, from its strobe-lit opening images, bathed in ruby light, to its magisterial finale, accompanied by Paweł Mykietyn’s magnificent, droning score, far better than anything nominated at this year’s Oscars. Yet as formally challenging as the film is (largely non-verbal, digressive and fragmentary rather than strictly linear), it’s also remarkably audience-friendly, a crowd-pleaser for reasons that go beyond the undeniable cuteness of its star. (Skolimowski used six different donkeys on set, and thanked each by name in his acceptance speech at Cannes.)

In his classic films, Walkover and Barrier and Identification Marks: None, the camera mostly stays fixed on the protagonist (usually Skolimowski himself), in much the same way it does, this time, on EO. When it leaves him, it’s to show what he sees or what may have caught his attention. Skolimowski’s is a democratic camera, interested in passers-by, in examples of art or advertising, in the movement of light across a surface, and it takes care to accord each of these things, while they’re onscreen, the same status as events in the primary narrative. The world is beguiling, a source of wonder as well as confusion. Nothing is too trivial, you realise, and everything is useful. Nevertheless, the film’s gaze remains steadfastly neutral – just like that of its four-legged protagonist, who sees all and judges nothing. Whatever sentimentality the viewer discerns in EO, they bring to it themselves.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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