The Donkey’s Eyes: Jerzy Skolimowski Discusses EO

Image for this story

The peripatetic Polish master discusses his bold and brave film, which dares to make a wayward donkey its hero.

By Daniel Kasman

It is not often that a film is made with radical sympathy. Too often, movies ignore the longing and pain of people, excluding their existence in form and feeling from storyworlds. And if such things are acknowledged, the movie will tend to make up for this rarity by overplaying misery and desperation. Jerzy Skolimowski's EO, a tremendously sad but also overwhelmingly beautiful picture, chooses the radical path. The film is devoted, in body and soul, style and spirit, to sympathizing with another creature, and one who suffers a great deal without exploiting either its pathos or the viewer’s emotional reserves. Skolimowski and his co-writer, producer, and wife Ewa, in the spirit of great compassion, tell the story not of a human creature, but of an animal; and better yet, a donkey.

Even with Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966) as a precedent, it’s an unexpected subject, but Skolimowski’s oeuvre is filled with films as adventurous as his career. The Polish master’s began as a contemporary of Roman Polanski, with whom he wrote Knife in the Water (1962) and his forthcoming movie The Palace, and after making several wonderfully zany and razor-sharp modernist features in his native country, Skolimowski become a peripatetic director, shooting in Belgium (Le départ, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud), the UK (Deep EndThe Shout, and Moonlighting being highlights), the United States, and Poland again before eventually taking a seventeen-year hiatus, during which the director focused on his painting. When he returned to filmmaking, Skolimowski never let up the surprises: he made an experimental minimalist chase film, Essential Killing (2010), starring Vincent Gallo as an Afghan prisoner of war, and the Irish thriller 11 Minutes (2015), which told interconnected stories that all take place during the same precise, titular time frame.

Hardly through with his provocative storytelling ambitions, Skolimowski’s EO is an episodic narrative that weaves between love, satire, abuse, misery, hope, confusion, and horror, as it follows a donkey's journey from Poland to Italy. Its wayward experience is evoked through a capricious and exhilarant range of stylistic experimentation. The camera frequently embodies an omniscient, allegorical position, flying with liquid fluidity over a fable-like landscape or scuttling, groundlevel, along with a red-tinged nightmare of zoomorphic robots. But it also takes on its hero’s perspective, insomuch as a camera can approximate donkey point-of-view shots and donkey dreams. Such camera and editing habits come together to create a compelling strangeness that can only come from trying to sympathize so strongly with something other than oneself. The effort alone is tender and admirable, but that EO frequently pulls off its tightrope feat—making us see or feel out of our body and mind, approaching an animal's sensitivity for one fleeting moment, and easily earning our immediate alignment with the donkey instead of the humans around it—is how this picture goes beyond well-meaning and achieves the cinematic.

Over a video conversation, Skolimowski spoke with us about his love of animals, his discovery of his protagonist, and his secret to directing donkeys. 

Continue reading here.