Certainly one of the year’s standout films, Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO is almost silent but says quite a lot about humanity, or lack thereof, showing us from the perspective of a donkey named EO how human indifference, selfishness and apathy can create lingering emotional impact on animals in ways we have not cared enough to examine.
Deceptively simple but ultimately profound and truly heartbreaking, the film is never fussy, over-the-top or emotionally manipulative, choosing to impact viewers with the smallest, most minimalistic moments possible, allowing us deep into EO’s soul as we witness his alienation, loneliness and, at times, anger.
Drawing from Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthazar, the film follows EO’s tumultuous journey to find love, compassion, and kindness – rare traits he does not seem to come across. We first see him in a local circus, apparently trained to be part of a daily show. Even though we might have guessed he is unhappy there, being forced to perform the act to a demanding audience every night, EO’s main consolation is his Kasandra, a compassionate young woman who performs the circus act with him every night.
EO’s relationship with Kasandra is the heart of the story, as their separation early on fuels EO’s desire to find his only human friend against all odds. When a local protest against animal abuse plaguing the mobile circus EO was part of leads to freeing the animals and transferring EO to a local farm, his journey away from Kasandra is marked by abuse, pain and a string of continuous disappointments.
Told through vignettes, as we see the happenings from the perspective of EO, the film shows us the multiple facets of abuse EO is subjected to. Physical abuse is shown early on the film, as he is used as some sort of soulless agricultural machine, transferring goods in the direst of circumstances, and in one harrowing sequence, he gets beaten up by some delusional soccer fans.
But perhaps the most telling facet of mistreatment that the film emphasizes comes later during the film, when we see how EO is used as some sort of accessory, a token to keep a wealthy, spoilt brat company. This section of the film, featuring Isabelle Huppert in a brief but memorable role, seems to be the most striking despite being the least brutal – as we get to truly examine humans’ inability to exhibit true empathy to a deeply bruised soul. To them, EO is just ‘an’ animal, one that is easily replaceable, disposable, and forgettable.
Michał Dymek’s cinematography provides the film with much emotion, balancing dream-like sequences with harsh sections that demonstrate EO’s inner pain despite the beautiful landscapes surrounding him. Forests, running water and the night breeze can all be quite menacing to a weak animal in turmoil. But just as vulnerable EO is, the film also shows his strong sense of survival and sheer power or soul. His determination to flee every abusing human, continue his almost impossible journey is quite touching to watch, showing us the strength of his spirit against all odds.
Dymek’s beautifully shot flashback scenes, showing EO reminiscing about his only friend as flashes of their memories together haunt his daily existence are some of the film’s most memorable moments, demonstrating that animals never forget their human companions. The almost-silent screenplay makes way for the cinematography to truly tell the story, showing us EO’s alienation and intimidation by his surroundings.
Poetic, heartbreaking and truly innovative, EO makes for a fascinating watch. The film’s final scenes, showing us EO blending once again with animals, serve as a painful reminder that when humans are no longer incapable of compassion and kindness, perhaps the animal world can be more forgiving and humane.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. EO will be released in the U.S. by Sideshow and Janus Films and is the International Feature Film Oscar submission for Poland.