Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Stars: Sandra Drzymalska, Lorenzo Zurzolo, Isabelle Huppert
In 1966 the French auteur Robert Bresson offered forth his film Au hasard Balthazar which framed the gamut of human decency and cruelty through the eyes of a lowly donkey, passed from owner to owner. The film is widely regarded as a masterpiece (co-signed here, for my part), and remains a fine entry point for approaching Bresson’s economic poetry. Now, nearly 60 years later, Polish film veteran Jerzy Skolimowski – who himself has a remarkable and varied career behind him – dares to effectively remake Bresson’s film.
EO (by turns Ettore, Hola, Marietta, Mela, Rocco and Tako) makes a more varied journey from owner to owner, but we meet him in the company of travelling circus, where he is fitfully cherished by Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). EO is repossessed in the name of animal liberation, only to be passed along a string of roles that require his servitude. On more than one occasion our passive beast of burden finds himself on the verge of slaughter, only for fate or happenstance to intervene.
Bresson’s film used it’s diminutive steed as a linking device for a series of interconnected human dramas that expressed a range of behaviours we know and understand. Skolimowski offers no such connective tissue, remaining steadfast in the company of EO alone. In spite of being portrayed by multiple donkeys, their resemblance makes for believable continuity. Still, we are challenged by the inexpressive black pools of EO’s eyes, which Skolimowski returns to over and over, as if puzzling out what might be gleamed.
The ambiguity of what we believe a donkey perceives and understands has a poetry of it’s own, one might say, but EO makes authoritative choices. Cutting back repeatedly to Kasandra frames these visions as memories – happy ones – for EO; a romantic anthropomorphism. The human behaviours encounters on the road, meanwhile, tend as expected toward the cruel and loutish. Football hooligans and truck stop muggers are endured. But there is kindness, too. Still, the episodic nature of this odyssey tires. Once can understand the decision to intermittently use Kasandra as a sentimental through-line in such a drifting narrative, but with little else to hold onto it also feels a mite heavy-handed – in a way that perhaps wasn’t intended.
Skolimowski employs a recurring visual framing against harsh, artificial red lighting, saturating EO in surreal, strobing environs. It looks dramatic as hell, but feels like a bit of a desperate push to register some kind of immediacy and vitality to the picture. The film is peppered with some undeniably gorgeous scenery porn (following the flow of a river by drone is genuinely hypnotic and – considering the speed – thrilling), but such sequences are also peppered with lightly pretentious affectations (a night skier filmed upside down; water running backwards).
Composer Paweł Mykietyn has certainly had a field day, and envelops EO in a wide-ranging and propulsively cinematic score. Just as well, as at times the overbearing bombast on the soundtrack is the only thing that kept this viewer from nodding off.
If this sounds unduly harsh, that’s the opposite of my intention, for the feeling most keenly generated by EO in this viewer was – sadly – ambivalence. The delicate balance and restraint of Bresson isn’t in evidence here, and many small decisions seem inexplicable (someone as recognisable as Isabelle Huppert for all of two scenes? Okay, but why?). EO has great humanitarian intentions, and that’s admirable. And comparing it to the Bresson might itself be unfair – the two clearly have very different internal calibrations – but my engagement and connection to Skolimowski’s offering was taciturn, fleeting. In many ways this is an ambitious and commendable serve from a European maverick whose own career pre-dates Au hasard Balthazar. Still, I can’t help but think of it as a lesser film, in spite of the impassioned swing.