The films that draw in cinephiles may be strange to outsiders. After all, the divide between the artistic side of the medium, and that of entertainment, has never felt larger. Even with that in mind, one of 2022’s most unique films will push the artistic fans of the medium. Director Jerzy Skolimowski became one of the talks of the Cannes Film festival with EO, a film following a donkey through Poland. The resulting marvel clocks in under ninety minutes and should be regarded as one of the year’s most impressive feats of storytelling.
Born in a circus, a young donkey is bonded with a young lady named Kassandra (Sandra Drzymalska). The donkey, EO, performs its part in the show and helps transport circus items. However, when the donkey is sold to cover debts, EO begins a remarkable journey through Poland. Along the way, EO experiences the world of man through unbiased eyes, experiencing joy, failure, heartbreak, and tragedy.
If the story of a donkey in the countryside feels like fodder for the cinephiles of the world, it’s because it’s based on Au Hasard Balthazar, a 1966 film by Robert Bresson. Yet the emotional punch of EO should expand the audience. That’s not to say it’s an everyman picture, showcasing avant-garde visuals and storytelling techniques. However, Skolimowski finds nuance in the film’s quiet moments, crafting an exceptional performance from the real-life donkeys. The resulting movie joins the animal canon of White Fang, Black Beauty, and War Horse, all stories that describe the follies of man through the eyes of an animal.
Granted, Skolimowski’s tale showcases expressionist filmmaking first and foremost. Few would deny that the story of a donkey could grow tiresome. Yet, in Skolimowski’s hands, it becomes a story of a changing Poland. His camera obsesses over the world around EO, allowing the donkey to observe unique creatures and interactions. Skolimowski allows the roving camera to focus on the unique aspects of the world, and each frame feels painterly.
This also allows EO to shift between genres at a moment’s notice. Some sequences provide genuine laugh lines, while others chill to the bone. Our titular donkey gets cross-faded in one sequence while attending a party (no, seriously). A journey through the woods at night leaves the lasers of rifles as our only lighting. A fast-moving drone shot flies through the sky and follows a river for miles as electric guitars accompany our journey. At one point, a soccer team cheers on its pseudo-mascot, only to become the subject of a hate crime. As EO travels, the world becomes even stranger.
Cinematographer Michal Dymek displays an eye for capturing the most important aspects of the world. To texture the world through the eyes of our protagonist. Dymek applies vivid lighting that changes the entire meaning of a sequence. Just as essential, the score from Pawel Mykietyn fills in the gaps in terms of emotional storytelling. Skolimowski lets his artists shine, but the complete vision unites the stunning craftwork on display.
The lack of a coherent narrative allows Skolimowski to wander too far on occasion, but you never lack for purpose. Within the world of EO, the vignettes feel cohesive in surprising ways. This may leave some audiences cold, but when EO strikes its best moments, it’s one of the year’s most emotional films. Even in its simplicity, EO feels epic in scope. It should be taught in schools for its expert storytelling and devotion to craft.