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‘EO’ Review: Polish Legend Jerzy Skolimowski Returns with a Madcap Bresson Remake

Cannes: Told through the eyes of a modest donkey, Skolimowski offers a visually experimental take on the 1966 black-and-white drama "Au Hasard Balthazar."

“EO”

Cannes

IWCriticsPick

One of many good things to be said about “EO,” surely the wackiest movie in competition at Cannes this year, is that you would have no idea it was made by an 84-year-old filmmaker in only his fourth movie since the fall of the Soviet Union. A master of the aesthetically liberated New Polish Cinema — fellow alum include Krzysztof Kieślowski, Agnieszka Holland, and Krzysztof Zanussi — Jerzy Skolimowski last won plaudits on the Croisette in the late ’70s and early ’80s for a string of British-made dramas starring the likes of John Hurt and Jeremy Irons. Horror film “The Shout,” with Alan Bates, took the Grand Prix jury prize in 1978. “Moonlighting,” in 1982, won best screenplay here. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it “one of the best films ever made about exile.”

“EO” is not like any of those, even if it does have something to say about exile.

Told through the eyes of a modest donkey — often literally — Skolimowski’s madcap, visually experimental “remake” of Robert Bresson’s 1966 black-and-white drama “Au Hasard Balthazar” has plenty of nods to his compatriot classmates and little to do with Skolimowski’s previous films. The titular donkey, onomatopoeically named (it is “Hi-Han” in France), is freed from a circus in central Poland and briefly becomes a hardcore “ultra” fan at a local soccer team, before being whisked away for more adventures, taking in the vastness of life along the way. Eo even meets Isabelle Huppert, a privilege any living being can look back on their years proudly for. (In Cannes’s answer to a Marvel cameo, the gasp Huppert’s appearance produced at last night’s press screening is one for the ages.)

The fact that Eo has no control over his destiny — our narrator, remember, is a literal donkey — makes for a somewhat anarchic viewing experience. There aren’t a series of human conversations to grab on to. There is seemingly no plot. In Bresson’s version, it’s the humans around the donkey who are the true center of the story. Not so in “EO.”This is Donkeyvision, and we’re better off for it.

Still, there are some welcome glimpses at the formative and underrated era in Polish cinema which produced Skolimowski et al. Local officials cutting a ribbon at a new farm warehouse are inept and inane, much like the Communist leaders of Kieślowski and Andrzej Wajda’s films. One image that sticks out is of a priest blessing the new facility. To say that many Polish films about the not-so-glorious opening of a new factory featured the same trope would be an understatement. Communism in Poland may be gone, but the country’s caustic wit, and the New Polish Cinema’s distrust of an all-seeing Catholic Church, remain.

That’s not to say “EO” is much of a throwback, though, and the extent to which it isn’t one is refreshing. There are some audacious visual tricks, notably the truly insane portrayal of Eo’s dreams — yes — and the donkey’s experience of circus performing, with drone footage to make Michael Bay jealous. The Łódź Film School tradition which Skolimowski was educated is known above all else for its innovations in photography. If the Italian Neo-Realists are documentarians and Britain’s kitchen sink filmmakers were social activists, those who came through Łódź with Skolimowski are technicians. “EO” shows that his skill, here, has not aged a day. (The fact Skolimowski has co-written the new Polanski, however, very much has.)

Clocking in at less than 90 minutes — other Competition titles so far have been more than a tad longer — “EO” is probably too slight and eccentric to be a Palme contender. That’s a shame, as it’s unlike anything else in the Cannes lineup.

Most likely, it found its place in Competition this year out of affinity for Skolimowski’s earlier work, and its relation to Bresson. Nevermind that they have entirely different ideological perspectives: Bresson’s is an almost spiritual tribute to the very nature of victimhood, with shades of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” Like much of the French New Wave icon’s work, each and every shot is placed with intention. “EO,” however, is more interested in telling a meandering tale about a donkey traipsing through contemporary Europe, in all its strangeness and savagery.

The most fleshed out human role is Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), Eo’s circus performer companion. It’s through her eyes that we see the sheer beauty of the animal — not everyone sees Eo this way — in a similar fashion that we perceive the beauty of Eve the cow in “First Cow” through the eyes of Cookie. After that, however, the human gaze takes a backseat.

Ingmar Bergman said after watching Bresson’s film: “A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.” By focusing almost entirely on his donkey, Skolimowski takes the unenviable task of challenging Bergman head-on — and, it seems, proves him wrong.

Grade: B+

“EO” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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