Okay, hands up: who had a donkey on their bingo card as the breakout movie star of 2023? The little mule at the centre of this intensely life-enriching, gloriously shot, sometimes acid-trippy parable about the tumultuous life of one beast of burden in modern-day Europe proves that you don’t need words to be captivating on screen.
Like Winnie the Pooh’s doleful pal, Eeyore, EO’s name is taken from the braying noise he sometimes uses to alert the world to moments of mild displeasure. It’s a rare sound – this is a pretty chilled donkey – although his unfortunate tendency to make a dash for it when no one is looking cascades him from one uncertain episode to the next.
The film begins in a Polish circus and takes in long-haul truck journeys, treks through fairy-tale forests, and stints on farms and horse racing stables. The latter comes to an abrupt end when he inadvertently knocks over, well, everything in his stable. Like all silent film stars worth their salt-lick, EO is a master of slapstick.
But Polish arthouse veteran Jerzy Skolimowski, who has scratched out such dark depictions of the human soul as 1970’s psychosexual shocker Deep End, hasn’t lost his edge down the years. He directs with endless compassion but zero sentimentality, reflecting the ugliness of the world through the imponderable eyes of this little donkey.
Amid the widescreen European landscapes come vivid jolts of violence: pissed-up football thugs bearing crowbars and a sudden, heartstopping murder. EO is marooned somewhere between a natural world full of wonder and the basest instincts of humankind.
The shifts in location and mood are powered by Paweł Mykietyn‘s stirring score (with the odd blast of Beethoven when things get hairy) and framed with eloquent compositions. In one of them, EO is backdropped by charging stallions, like a battered Mini overtaken by a clutch of Ferraris, and it creates a brief moment that’s alive with communion, solidarity and sadness.
In a cruel irony, it’s animal rights activists who initially separate him from his doting circus trainer (Sandra Drzymalska). She’s the one person who genuinely cares for his welfare (and has a ready supply of his favourite carrot muffins) – at least, until he encounters a young lapsed priest and finds himself at his mother’s Italian villa. Isabelle Huppert cameos as the regally despairing mum, who upbraids her dissolute offspring for his gambling addiction, while EO munches serenely on her manicured lawns.
Even Isabelle Huppert can’t pull focus from this little inscrutable donkey
That domestic drama, a nod perhaps to the melancholy spiritualism of Robert Bresson’s great donkey flick Au Hasard Balthazar, briefly shuts out EO from his own story. But even La Huppert can’t pull focus from this little inscrutable donkey for long, as he continues his journey into the unknown.
The effect is eerie, profound and emotional. As a mirror back onto humanity’s foibles and criminal excesses, EO is the perfect heir to Bresson’s long-suffering Balthazar. And while Skolimowski never beats this drum too hard, his big-eared star’s odyssey shows humanity to be just as capable of casual brutality and callous indifference as ever. You worry for this little mule, but ultimately you worry for us even more.
In UK cinemas Feb 3