The Cameo, Edinburgh
Veteran director Jerzy Skolimowski has certainly been around the block. I first became aware of him as co-writer of Roman Polanski’s debut feature Knife in the Water in 1962. (It was later remade by Hollywood as Dead Calm.) I also remember seeing his early directorial feature Deep End in 1970 – and being quietly blown away by it.
Over the years, the man occasionally resurfaces with something entirely unexpected. Most recently, he’s been glimpsed as an actor in – of all things – Avengers Assemble. But few could have foreseen that a man in his mid-80s would come up with something as radically different and downright captivating as EO. This powerful, episodic – and ultimately tragic – tale centres on the adventures of… a donkey. That title also serves as the name of its lead character, a reference to the braying sounds he occasionally makes, sometimes with calamitous results. Co-written by Skolimowski and his partner, Ewa Piaskowska, this is an extraordinarily accomplished film, the work of a director at the height of his powers.
When we first meet Eo, he’s working in a small travelling circus somewhere in Poland, where he performs alongside Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), who clearly adores the very sawdust on which he treads. But when the circus is besieged by angry animal rights supporters, Eo, along with his fellow circus animals, is led into a truck and driven away. He soon finds himself sequestered in a fancy stable, alongside a collection of thoroughbred horses, but – while they are spoiled and pampered by their human keepers – he is required to pull a cart and perform menial tasks. And his dreams are haunted by images of Kasandra and those nightly circus performances.
After an unfortunate accident involving a trophy cabinet, Eo is sent away to a petting farm where he is required to interact with groups of children and it’s here that he seems to have the best opportunity to thrive. But, after a brief visit from a drunken Kasandra, Eo escapes from his enclosure and wanders away in search of her. The resulting quest takes him through a whole series of misadventures. Michal Dymek’s stunning cinematography captures some truly astonishing sequences, while Pawel Mykietyn’s eerie score provides a ravishing accompaniment.
On his journey Eo encounters humanity in all its forms and he’s not always treated gently – a scene where he is brutally attacked by drunken football supporters will linger long after the credits have rolled.
Throughout everything, Eo’s placid composure somehow sets him apart from the humans with whom he’s obliged to interact. Lingering closeups of his gentle eyes are particularly affecting and the unlikely central role (performed, it turns out, by six different donkeys) is brilliantly realised. The true strength of the story is that it’s nearly all observed from Eo’s point of view – indeed, the two scenes where it diverges from that conceit feel strangely intrusive and are the only reason why this film doesn’t attain a perfect five stars.
As EO trots trustingly towards a truly heartrending conclusion, I’m increasingly compelled to consider humanity’s inherent cruelty towards the other creatures who share the planet, and who surely deserve a better fate than the one that’s meted out here. EO is a little masterpiece, and if you can manage to track it down on a big screen, so much the better.