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Thoughts on Eo

I went into Eo expecting to have a good old cry. Admittedly, I was primed for this expectation: one review from the BFI trailer reads: ‘It left me shattered… Just being there, quietly weeping with others gave me a sense of communion’ – film as religious catharsis. And yet, entering into a cinema with that expectation leaves you clutching onto a preconceived idea of what you want the film to do to you (I had a similar experience when watching Parasite for the first time a few weeks ago. Given all its hype over the past few years, I had high expectations. Yet, in that state of wanting, of desiring certain emotions to be triggered, I didn’t let the film work its magic on me – its twists disappointed me, and I was left wondering: ‘is that it?’)

So anyway, I was ready for a big old cry; a cry over humanity’s follies and a cry over a beautiful, innocent donkey. And though the film did move me, I wasn’t left ‘quietly weeping’. Which leads me to wonder: is that a failing of mine, or of the film? It feels hard to separate the two…

o tells the story of a donkey’s adventure across Europe, a journey through various natural and man-made landscapes, through the varieties of human vices and their subsequent impact on the natural world around them. And director Jerzy Skolimowski, now in his 84th year, doesn’t show any signs of conservatism in his later years (indeed one of the most refreshing things about Eo is how modern it feels – I knew the director wasn’t especially young, but I could never have guessed that he was in his 80s!). Over the course of the film, Skolimowski presents us with the very worse of humanity: violent football hooliganism, murder, sexual extortion, fox fur farming, inter-familial relationships, hunting, and, of course, the abuse of animals.

Against the backdrop of such animalism, the eponymous donkey becomes the most humanised figure of all. When he barges out of his wooden pen in search of his former owner, we cheer as if a prisoner has escaped from their cell. When he drops down into the forest and communes with the owls, foxes, and wolves (as well as playfully sniffing at some ants), we warmed as if watching a child discovering the natural world for the first time – teeming with life. And when we see Eo in the back of a trailer gazing out through a narrow slit towards a herd of horses running through the fields, we share his desire to be free (this sense of confinement and claustrophobia reaches its awful climax at the film’s conclusion – through the twists and turns of the cattle gates, which lead further and further away from the open fields, you feel there can be only one ending).

However, there are times where the symbolism feels a little too one-dimensional: an open gate for freedom, a red light for danger, etc. But isn’t this (my) desire for such multi-layered, multi-faceted symbols a complication, a deviation from some essential truth? Given that we see most of the film through Eo’s eyes (literally – the cinematography shifts to a disorientating vignette whenever we inhabit his perspective), surely we are meant to read these symbols as simply as he sees them. In his production notes, Skolimowski writes: ‘Donkey’s don’t know what ‘acting’ is, they can’t pretend anything – they simply ARE […] They live to the fullest in the present moment’. In Skolimowski’s world, simply being aware of events as they occur, not reading hidden allegories and meanings into everything, is more than enough – and something everyone could do with a bit more of.

By spending so much time with non-human characters, Eo sometimes lapses into the cartoonish, as if we’re watching a live-action Disney movie. The horses become loyal, if at times dopey, companions, the donkeys become lovable and innocent Eeyore’s, and so on. Perhaps this desire to anthropomorphise and reduce the animals we see on screen to caricatures is a testament to our general inability to see animals as possessing an inner life – one that is wholly distinct to our own, and therefore unrecognisable. And yet, such caricatures are often the only way that those who live apart from animals most of their life can even begin to comprehend them.

All this is to say that I felt the film could’ve benefitted from some more fully fleshed out human relationships with the animals. Of course, the most intimate relationship is between Eo and his original owner, Magda, who performs with him under the stage name Kasandra (I wonder how significant it is that the most intimate relationship between a human and an animal in the film is only formed within a literal circus of exploitation, where animals are tortured daily for our own entertainment). Yet, their relationship only spans the first 10-15 minutes, and we never hear from Kasandra again. I’m left wondering whether my desire to see them both reunited eventually was just an all-too-human desire for a happy (cartoonish) ending; Skolimowski’s reality is far more uncompromising…

In the place of these human relationships, we have Michal Dymek’s incredible cinematography, and Paweł Mykietyn’s score (just listen to the trailer for a flavour of it: the delicacy beauty of the strings straining over the blazing horns). The visuals transform mundane scenes – such as a donkey trotting through open moorland – into ones of epic proportions. In one of the film’s most spectacular visual flourish, the world is transformed into a monochromatic vision of infrared as we ride with the wind, following the blades of a wind turbine as it cuts through the air (and then cuts a beautiful bird down from the sky). Later on, we are treated to pure visual poetry – as Eo crosses over dam, we see water roaring in reverse, a never-ending torrent of currents and swells, aggressive and unfathomable. Nature can fuck you up, it seems, even as we try our best to tame in into our own image.

Skolimowski has said that he wanted ‘above all to make an emotional film […] much more than in any of my previous films’. This is not an animal-rights tirade, nor a sermon on the wrongs of man, but it is a film whose scenes linger uncomfortably long as you sit in the silence after the final black screen appears (even if they don’t leave you bawling your eyes out in the end!)


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