Ageists will have their prejudices properly rattled by this tribute to a 57-year-old French film from an 84-year-old Polish director. Whatever else you may say about EO, you would have a hard time arguing it was afraid of scaring the (literal or figurative) horses.
Jerzy Skolimowski, director of classics such as Deep End and The Shout, has pondered Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which followed the picaresque adventures of a doomed donkey, and set his own beast loose on an odyssey that takes us from a circus in Poland to folk horrors in a haunted forest to encounters with boisterous football supporters to uneasy friendship with a metal-fancying trucker and, most surprising of all, adjacency (no more than that) to Isabelle Huppert as a grandly agitated Contessa. Whereas Bresson proceeded with characteristic monkish austerity, Skolimowski is at home to blaring noises, sickening camera angles and pop-video lens filters. This is a profoundly serious film, one concerned about our disregard for animals and our disintegrating ecosystems, but it is also restlessly alive.
The onomatopoeically named EO – sound it out as two syllables – gets set loose when, following protests against the use of animals in circuses, its “employer” goes bust and the beast (gender never clarified) is condemned to wander central Europe. There is a pointer here to the film’s overarching pessimism. One senses that Skolimowski is on the side of the animal rights protesters, but this is a film constantly aware of the sticky underside of apparent good fortune. EO is cruelly treated, but at least one human acquaintance is even more barbarously misused. We are all in this hell together.
[ ‘If human beings keep mistreating nature and animals, we will be left with robots’ ]
Making the most of fine performances from six different donkeys (Tako, Hola, Ettore, Marietta, Rocco and Mela), the director never layers on the anthropomorphism. He doesn’t need to. The film is aware of the audience’s tendency to impose human emotions on animals, and no species invites such identification more than the most placid of equids. The result is a unique mix of the absurd and the profound. You couldn’t call the piece sentimental, but it is occasionally hard not to make it thus in your own head.
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It has certainly worked its surprising charm on early audiences. Unveiled to mostly polite applause at Cannes, it went on to win the Jury Prize there and, last week, knocked aside such fancied films as Decision to Leave and Saint Omer to secure an Oscar nomination for best international feature.
There is still fire in Skolimowski’s belly.