Compassionate donkey epic peers deep into the modern world’s soul

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Au hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson (1966) and EO by Jerzy Skolimowski (2022)

  • All pictures: provided
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The comparisons between the two films are meant to indicate how EO manages to step out of Bresson’s large shadow that might loom over the Polish film.
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In 1966, seminal French director Robert Bresson loosely adapted Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The idiot into Au hasard Balthazar, a film that follows a donkey from life to death as he passes from one owner to the next, each treating the innocent beast of burden with varying degrees of dignity. Given the austerity of Bresson’s worldview expressed in the majority of his sternly devout filmography, the film is often read as a parable of the fate of the innocent and pure-hearted in an unforgiving world. In this classic film, we are invited to peer into the inscrutable eyes of Balthazar while he witnesses the full spectrum of human kindness and cruelty – left to the viewer to interpret from the animal’s blank stares – in his various owners. So deep did the profundity of the film’s seemingly simplistic set-up go, that another film auteur of the time, the recently deceased Jean-Luc Godard, famously claimed that this solemn film represents “the world in an hour and a half”.

A moment from Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Fast-forward to the announcement of the Official Selection for the 2022 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, where Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO is announced in the line-up. The synopsis reads: “How mysterious is the world when viewed through the eyes of a donkey. EO, a grey donkey with melancholic eyes, meets good and bad people on his life’s path, experiences joy and pain, and endures the wheel of fortune randomly turning his luck into disaster and his despair into unexpected bliss.” One can therefore be forgiven for mistaking this description for a rehash of a film that had already been made almost six decades earlier. The 84-year-old Skolimowski (himself a peer of Bresson and Godard), however, manages to breathe fierce and impressionistic new life into a sacred cinematic treasure by updating Bresson’s transcendental fable for our current cultural climate. He achieves this in both the form and the matching content of his masterful new film.

EO, the braying protagonist in this incarnation of the donkey’s tale, enters the film in the way that the noble Balthazar left us: breathing heavily while lying flat on the ground, apparently ready to give over to death’s final grip. EO, however, nimbly jumps back to his feet soon after, and Skolimowski reveals that EO was merely playing his charming part to a crowd of cheering circus guests. In this moment of reversal from Bresson’s closing scene, we are implicitly informed that this will not be the “donkey film” we previously knew. This opening, therefore, already unshackles the film’s content from the heavy weights that being a “remake” of the austere Au hasard Balthazar would have had. By doing so, Skolimowski announces it as his own interpretation of the world, fit for the realities of 2022.

EO is taken care of by Kasandra, a fellow (human) circus performer, who displays genuine affection for this innocent creature. The two companions are separated when animal activists demand that the circus shuts down, and EO is ironically removed from the only owner with whom he experiences – assuming one can justly attribute this trait to an animal like him – love. Through a series of episodic events that follow, EO moves from one human counterpart to the next. During these transitions, he acts as the agent of his own fate on more than one occasion – a significant departure from Bresson’s predominantly passive character. The cacophony of situations that EO stumbles into range from the humorous to the dire, sometimes distressing and other times hopeful, but never without probing deep into the complexities of human behaviour.

During the film’s brisk runtime, Skolimowski resists the temptation to be didactic or instructive about what his creature is witnessing. Instead, he creates a space for the audience to judge the situations for themselves through a minimalist and elliptical storytelling approach. One way in which he deviates decisively from Bresson’s template of stark objectivity is in anthropomorphising the animal, through either point-of-view shots or subjective imaginings of his supposed inner world. This drastic change in format suggests that, since Bresson’s film, our regard for animals’ sentience has evolved.

The titular EO with one of his human companions

In line with this revisionist viewpoint, Skolimowski also applies a wide range of experimental cinematic techniques to create an impressionistic atmosphere reminiscent of how we can only imagine a donkey experiencing a world driven by modern technology and monetary incentive. In one standout dream sequence, EO’s animal instinct is represented by a mechanical robot that not only refuses to be beaten down, but also always finds a way to get back up. It suggests that the technological marvels of the modern world might not be so far removed from the intrinsic wonders that already reside in the natural one – even in a creature as simple as the humble donkey. While this may sound like a wide-eyed way of portraying such a sentimental notion, Skolimowski manages to keep a level head all the way through to the film’s fatalistic final cut to black. But what a stunning, illuminative journey of haphazard encounters to arrive there – which, rather than to spoil it here, is best experienced first-hand by the viewer.

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By reinterpreting what it means to be pure of heart in the modern world, we are given the privilege of looking at ourselves through EO’s non-judgemental eyes during his odyssey.
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The comparisons between the two films are meant to indicate how EO manages to step out of Bresson’s large shadow that might loom over the Polish film. By reinterpreting what it means to be pure of heart in the modern world, we are given the privilege of looking at ourselves through EO’s non-judgemental eyes during his odyssey. Whereas Bresson seemed to look at the world as a place that treats the innocent cruelly, Skolimowski instead appears to suggest that people act inadvertently maliciously and out of ignorance – leaving plenty of room for improvement. EO is therefore a sober yet joyful celebration of life that encourages us to reflect and reconsider our place in the world. Instead of basking in our self-appointed roles as rulers over nature, we are invited and challenged in EO by the unprejudiced gaze of a sentient companion to become better at sharing our world with others.

  • EO will be screened as part of the 10th European Film Festival South Africa (www.eurofilmfest.co.za) in October 2023
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