This Polish film tilts more to cynicism than cuteness
Using an animal to tell a picaresque story is something that filmmakers have successfully done from Au hasard Balthazar (1966) to War Horse (2011). The rather neutral eye of an animal permits an unfiltered observation on humanity. This is the method and tactic used by the Polish film EO (2022).
EO follows the eponymous circus donkey as he traverses modern day Poland and Europe through various owners, from a friendly, but poor farm, to lush show-horse stables, and a sports after-party.
EO is directed by veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, his first film in seven years since 11 Minutes (2015). While some might be surprised at the use of a cute donkey’s story as an entry in the cynical Skolimowski’s filmography, the use of the animal does little to blunt his pessimism. EO and its animal ruse is used to ruthlessly criticize Polish and human society at large, from the shameless income inequality to the mistreatment of animals, the meaningless division sports cause, etc. The focuses of Skolimowski’s criticisms are all valid enough, if a bit too disparate and almost random to fit neatly in his narrative.
Many of these picaresque animal films use their central character to visit multiple episodic stories at once. EO uses this pattern, but is messily structured, so that the titular donkey disappears for a handful of scenes as Skolimowski makes his sociological point through uninteresting human characters. This uneven balance is paired with some sequence transitions that appear surrealistic and bathed in a red tint, this proves mesmerizing enough for a time, but its repetition reveals it as a tool to cover the fact that the narrative doesn’t have clean transitions from one episode to the next. This illustrates an adept directing hand, but a rather weak script and plot motivation.
EO, the character, is played by a handful of donkeys who bring us heart wrenching performances that many human actors would aspire to give. This is a much a merit from the animals as from Skolimowski, who crafts emotionally transparent scenes using not a single word of dialogue, or human for that matter. The human characters and actors vary in interest, but are bogged down by the film’s necessity to bring about its worst opinion of them and their decisions.
In the end, EO is a rather well directed film, but one that is exhaustingly cynical. The inevitable unevenness of the narrative episodes feels choppier given the lack of smooth transitions from one story to the next. There’s rarely a ray of hope in the film, which ends in such a down note you beg the question of whether Skolimowski is going to therapy.