EO Review: Au Hasard Balthazar Homage Is a Case of Been There, Donkey That

Give an animal a name, and it becomes a lot more difficult to send it to the glue factory. But people don’t stop using paste simply because they’ve made an equine friend. Named for the animal it follows from owner to owner, through various hardships and across national borders, “EO” is a damning polemic on our relationship to other intelligent species — as free labor, food and companions — as seen through the dewy, wide eyes of a donkey whom we come to adore.

“EO’s” inspiration is obvious. In Robert Bresson’s 1966 “Au Hasard Balthazar,” two kids christened a newborn donkey in the film’s opening minutes. By the end, when Balthazar sighed his last breath, audiences wept, such was the attachment they had formed. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski reckons Bresson’s relatively austere classic was the only time he shed a tear in the cinema. Now, at the age of 84, he unveils a movie intended to have the same effect on others. Though many will be moved, it is manipulation more than empathy that got them there.

While “EO” is not a direct remake, it’s certainly more than homage. Bresson’s film was, among other things, a rejection of on-screen sentimentality. Five minutes in, the child who gave Balthazar his name dies, after which, the donkey repeatedly changes owners, an anonymous possession to whom only the audience (as opposed to the characters) seemed particularly attached. That same dynamic is true here, to a degree, except that Skolimowski romanticizes and partly anthropomorphizes the beast, giving him subjective shots and flashbacks, perhaps even dream sequences. (How else to explain the striking red filters and free-floating drone footage?)

While Skolimowski and co-writer Ewa Piaskowska (his collaborator since “Four Nights With Anna”) present the endearing animal as innocence incarnate, practically every scene serves to indict what foul custodians of the world men are: There are violent anarchists and vile factories, crude smugglers and cruel fox fur farmers. The director takes some bold risks, but it can be confusing at times trying to figure out what’s happening, or how the poor donkey got from one scene to the next (he ambles into a tunnel and emerges in a field, or walks out the front gate of an Italian villa straight into a slaughterhouse).

Unlike Bresson’s film, which begins at birth, the donkey is full-grown at the outset and already has a name, EO, flashed on screen amid the strobe lights of a traveling circus performance. EO is well looked after here — and downright adored by Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), the Polish dancer who performs alongside him in the ring. She caresses his mane and plants kisses in his beard, feeding him carrot muffins on special occasions. What more to life is there than this?

Then a crowd of animal rights protesters appears, accusing the circus of “torture,” and demanding that it immediately cease using live animals. EO is carted away, the protesters thinking themselves victorious — but little do they realize that his life will be downhill from here. (As it happens, the same thing is happening in France today. Activists have demanded that certain wild animals no longer be used in film and TV shoots, so the trainers are obliged to put them down, as they can no longer afford to care for the creatures.)

This logistical complication bears mentioning since Skolimowski and company clearly made the film with live donkeys — six of them, to be precise — and while the crew took great care to respect the animals, one day such a movie may not be permitted at all. For now, no convincing equivalent for real animals exists, and movies with virtual substitutes feel increasingly like live-action cartoons. Of course, there’s good reason for on-set safety guidelines, as a movie like “The Adventures of Milo & Otis” made clear. Twenty kittens were reportedly killed during that film, and another was dropped over a cliff to get a shot.

Meanwhile, this movie wouldn’t be the same if EO were CG, and part of its magic (for the film is effective, even if it was made with a heavy hoof) comes from the way we project human emotions on its largely silent protagonist. Skolimowski uses other tricks to communicate the mood, such as Paweł Mykietyn’s unambiguous electronic score and a dizzying array of trick shots, some from EO’s point of view. In one deliberately ironic scene, the donkey gazes out the window to see a herd of wild horses running free. Is that envy we’re meant to see on his face?

Writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard famously described “Au Hasard Balthazar” as giving audiences “the world in an hour and a half,” and though Skolimowski rejects so many of Bresson’s artistic conceits (starting with the way he wants a donkey that acts, rather than an ambivalent beast), he shares that goal. Both directors use the animal to comment on human nature, though Skolimowski is more didactic, including shots of deforestation and a massive manmade dam, whereas Bresson invited a certain ambiguity. Here, characters are instantly forgotten, their stories abandoned. One quite shockingly has his throat slit without explanation. Through it all, EO remembers only his circus friend.

In theory, the film’s scenes could be arranged in almost any order, with cameos along the way for Isabelle Huppert as a plate-smashing countess and Lorenzo Zurzolo as a prodigal son/priest who begs EO’s forgiveness for all the kilos of salami he’s eaten. What is it about EO that brings out the best in some people and the worst in others? And what would have constituted a happy ending? All animals die. But it’s a lot more tragic when we know their names.

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