Producers: Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Paiskowska   Director: Jerzy Skolimowski   Screenplay: Ewa Paiskowska and Jerzy Skolimowski   Cast: Sandra Dryzmalska, Isabelle Huppert, Lorenzo Zurzulo, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, Tomasz Organek, Ettore, Hola, Marietta, Mela, Rocco, and Tako    Distributor: Janus Films/Sideshow

Grade: B+

There are plenty of human actors in Jerzy Skolimowski’s film—including French icon Isabelle Huppert, playing an ill-tempered countess—but they’re all doing support work for the title character, a donkey whose odyssey reveals the relationship, occasionally kind but often cruel or indifferent, between people and animals.  Loosely inspired by Robert Bresson’s “Au hazard, Balthasar” (1966) but forging a path of its own, ”EO” manages to be both a homage to Bresson’s film and a compelling new take on its trajectory. 

When EO (played by six animals—Ettore, Hola, Marietta, Mela, Rocco, and Tako) is introduced, it’s in a hallucinatory sequence bathed in red light.  It’s revealed that the donkey, called after its braying sound, is part of a circus routine in tandem with pretty Kasandra (Sandra Dryzmalska), who treats her partner kindly.  But EO’s also employed as a beast of burden by the circus, hauling refuse to a nearby junkyard.  The dual role is ended, though, when the circus is closed down—the result, it appears, of both financial difficulties and protests from animal rights’ activists.

EO is summarily relocated to a horse ranch, where the donkey, now just a beast of burden, watches the steeds pampered and well fed, and then after what might be either an accident or a sign of displeasure over unequal treatment, to a farm that also serves incidentally as a children’s zoo.  But then EO departs on an episodic adventure, surviving a forest full of hunters but falling afoul of hooligans who hold the beast’s braying the cause of their loss in a soccer game.  After stints in an animal hospital and a fur farm, EO is picked up by a truck driver (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) transporting horses to an unknown destination; that episode ends in violence, with EO falling in with a young man (Lorenzo Zurzolo).  He takes the donkey home to a palatial estate where it’s revealed that the man is an exiled priest seeking a reunion with his imperious stepmother (Huppert), with whom he shared an apparently amorous past.  But EO does not remain there: off again, the donkey winds up with a herd of cows in a location that will not be revealed here.

A degree of anthropomorphism is probably unavoidable in a film like this—we’re occasionally treated to flashes of EO’s memories, for instance, and on a couple of occasions EO practically does an eye roll when knocking over a trophy case at the horse ranch or clobbering a brutal overseer at the fur farm—but this is no cutesy Disney portrait.  One has to read feelings into the frequent focus on the animal’s face rather than having them telegraphed to you explicitly, though the contexts in which Skolimowski situates them necessarily affects the interpretation.

And those settings are often striking, enhanced by the extraordinary cinematography of Mychal Dymek (with additional footage shot by Pawel Edelman and Michal Englert).  While most of the film is relatively naturalistic, an image of EO crossing a bridge against the backdrop of a waterfall is like a museum painting, and the forest sequence, shot through with red lasers from the hunters’ rifles and the noise of scurrying foxes, has a hallucinatory quality.  Elsewhere the film goes a surrealistic route: when the donkey is beaten, he turns into a robotic metal skeleton thrashing about bathed in red light.  And there are overhead shots from far above as the donkey trots through fields and along roads—as if a God’s-eye POV.

The humans whom EO encounters are an eclectic bunch.  Dryzmalska’s is certainly the character who empathies most with the animal, and is recalled with what appears to be affection, but the actress also invests her with a flightiness that overcomes the circus performer’s concern for her former partner.  The trucker played by Kościukiewicz gets a mini-drama all his own in which EO acts merely as an observer of human folly, while Zurzolo and Huppert enact an elliptical domestic drama that suggests deep undercurrents; no wonder the donkey elects to leave it hanging.  Miroslaw Koncewicz’s production design showcases cannily chosen backdrops for all the episodes, which have been been stitched together smoothly by editor Agnieszka Glińska.  Pawel Mykietyn’s score is evocative but spare and understated.

It takes courage to attempt a new take on a film many regard as a classic; it’s a challenge Skolimowski has embraced to remarkable effect.