Jerzy Skolimowski’s Cannes-winning EO makes you think about the use of animals in film.
Warning: contains spoilers.
It all starts with a red flash. Through the strobe effect, you can make out a closeup of an animal lying down and its young trainer.
“You can do it. Get up!” the trainer repeats with genuine care in her voice. The animal manages to get back on its feet. The colors normalize and the wide shot shows the gray donkey in the middle of a sawdust circus stage.
This is the protagonist of the story.
The animal’s name is EO, IO in Polish, which sounds like a donkey’s jarring bray, “IIIIIIIIIHHH-OOOOOOOH!” At the beginning of the film, EO is both a performer and working animal in the circus. After animal activists demand the circus hand over its animals, the donkey goes on a journey during which he ends up passing through very different hands. All the while, EO misses his beloved trainer. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO (2022) is a fairy tale for adults. The Cannes Jury Prize winning movie has as much Pinocchio to it as it does Robert Bresson’s beautifully cruel Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).
Skolimowski has also said that Bresson’s classic about an abused donkey is the only film to ever make him cry.
Jerzy Skolimowski began his career in the 1960s and is warhorse of European cinema, part of the same generation as Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Żuławski. Skolimowski’s film school works Identification Marks:None (1965) and Walkover (1965) have a jagged new wave aesthetic and feature him in leading roles. Young Skolimowski was also a co-writer on Roman Polanski’s first film Knife in the Water (1962). Skolikmowski’s career has drifted unevenly, leaving him in the shadow of his more successful (and controversial) compatriot. For a long time, Skolimowski’s best known directorial work was the London set, sexually charged black comedy Deep End (1970). This quirky coming-of-age tale about a teenage boy who becomes obsessed with a spa employee is an early predecessor to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021).
From 1991 to 2008, Skolimowski didn’t direct any feature films. The Polish resident of Los Angeles focused on painting instead. “The director is known of course in the most serious of cinephile circles, but otherwise, he’s a nobody. This sometimes happens to the greats. Recognition comes from here and there, but never a crown,” wrote Kalle Kinnunen about Skolimowski in Suomen Kuvalehti in 2011. Skolimowski has also pulled a Werner Herzog from time to time. Meaning, he’s taken side roles in American movies. The easiest way to make money is how he’s explained his occasional acting. The Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for EO has gotten a lot of attention for Skolimowski’s earlier directorial work. 84-year-old Jerzy Skolimowski is at the top.
EO is full of memorable images, such as the green laser beams of the hunters’ weapons cutting through the darkness and the upwards flowing waterfall at the end. Sometimes, it veers into straight psychedelia, following a robot dog wading through mud puddles for a while. The silver screen repeatedly screams out a deep red.
I already mentioned the red strobe effect reminiscent of Gaspar Noé at the beginning of EO. It’s just the first of Skolimoswki’s attention-grabbing stylistic devices. EO is filmed in the somewhat square 1.50:1 aspect ratio, which is a bit wider than the 4:3 style currently preferred by indie and arthouse films. According to cinematographer Michał Dymek, EO was originally intended to be shot in widescreen, but the donkey’s head was better suited to a more narrow format. Dymek and Skolimowski alternately bring the camera almost up to EO’s coat to create subjectivity and separate the donkey from the setting with the camera’s distance, thus underlining his loneliness. Dymek uses both a telephoto lens, which flattens the background, and a wide-angle lens, which distorts the center of the image. This way, it is often only EO who is clear in a cloudy environment. The donkey’s humanization happens beyond just the visual techniques. Scenes that build the world of EO’s experiences are shot handheld. EO, while being carted away in a truck, is shown watching horses running in a meadow, and the shift of focus from the horses to the donkey creates the Kuleshov effect: he envies the horses’ freedom. EO is full of memorable images, such as the green laser beams of the hunters’ weapons cutting through the darkness and the upwards flowing waterfall at the end. Sometimes, it veers into straight psychedelia, following a robot dog wading through mud puddles for a while. The silver screen repeatedly screams out a deep red. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether Skolimowski’s gimmick works. In any case, it’s a delight to see an eighty-something director still so excited about the possibilities of filmmaking.
In terms of EO’s themes, it’s important that most of the people the donkey encounters are not sadists of animal cruelty. The animal rights activists see the trainer the donkey longs for as behaving unethically during their circus act, but all the information provided by the film points to her really loving the donkey. In a moving scene, a class of children with mental disabilities gets to hang out with and pet the donkey during story time. There are of course assholes in the story too, like the soccer hooligans who beat EO unconscious. People mostly treat the donkey with empathy though or with the apparent neutrality we usually treat animals. Even the easily demonized furrier who takes EO with him at one point is only doing his job, which just happens to include electrocuting foxes.
“He’s just doing his job.”
Comparing animal industries to the Holocaust is a typical vegan and animal rights rhetorical technique. It’s impossible not to notice the comparison of these industries to mass murder. While wandering through the forest at night, EO passes through a Jewish cemetery, and the camera lingers on the Hebrew letters on the headstones. EO’s sad end forces the association with the prisoners’ march towards death in concentration camps.
In the beginning of the film, we see a horse running in a circle cut with a flashing red light. As critic Michael Sicinski has pointed out, the hypnotic scene calls back to early film history and Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830–1904) image series of running race horses. The same Muybridge connection can be found in British avantgarde Malcolm Le Grice’s short film Berlin Horse (1970), as well as Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022).
Now that real sex has become a part of the arthouse cinema, killing an animal in front of the camera has remained the last way to shock arthouse audiences who have seen it all.
A great number of animals have suffered for film. Think first of all the horses in old Westerns that are shown falling in front of the camera or get a bullet to the skull. And the list goes on.
Andrei Tarkovsky shot a horse in Andrei Rublev (1967), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1978) can add a water buffalo, in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) the French bourgeois shot real hares, and a calf is split inside a cow in Rauni Mollberg’s The Land of Our Ancestors (1973). A cat is killed in Hungarian Bela Tarr’s nine hour masterpiece Sátántangó (1995), slowly and in one intoxicating shot. Tarr has claimed in several interviews that nothing happened to the cat, but I don’t intend to watch the anxiety-inducing scene again for a closer analysis. Now that real sex has become a part of the arthouse cinema, killing an animal in front of the camera has remained the last way to shock arthouse audiences who have seen it all. The last time I had to witness this kind of provocation was in a six-hour film by the Russian director Ilja Hržanovski, DAU. Degeneration (2020), which comes to a horrifying climax when a gang of Neo-Nazis cut the head off of a squealing pig and disembowel it on the living room floor.
No animal should die or suffer for artistic vision. Each one of the above named directors, including the geniuses, have a special place in Hell.
One user on the film social platform Letterbox is known for sharing “vegan warnings.” Beyond pure animal cruelty, vegan warnings can come from leather jackets, riding on horses, or meat being served on screen. Even though I just declared myself as being against animal abuse and cruelty in the name of art, something about vegan warnings gets under my skin. This cinephile’s knee-jerk reaction: it’s obviously ridiculous to judge a movie over a flash of ham or fur coat.
The warnings still have their annoying point.
If we’re being precise, can it really be said that animals aren’t harmed in production if, for example, craft services are offering meat? What about manipulating a dog into growling or a horse to whinny for a scene? In a video from filming Man Exposed (2006), Aku Louhimies has the idea to ask Samuli Edelmann to scream in a cat’s ear. The seemingly frustrated Edelmann refuses. “I am certainly not going to try yelling into a cat’s ear!” Scaring a cat with a loud noise isn’t exactly Teemu Mäki kind of stuff, but it still needlessly harms animals.
EO ends with the text, “This movie is made with love for animals and nature. Animal welfare during production was always the top priority, and no animals were harmed making this film.” Scenes don’t depict any harm to the donkey, if being pulled by a rope doesn’t count, but just the hustle and bustle of filming could be thought of as bad for donkeys. More and more productions use digitally created animals to replace live ones. Theoretically, EO could have been made without using real donkeys; six were needed for Skolimowski’s film. The effect would have then been very different and likely more artificial than using real donkeys.
The end of the donkey’s odyssey leaves uncomfortable questions hanging in the air.
Teksti: Sakri Pölönen