The will to live is strong. That’s what makes octogenarian Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s Oscar-tipped EO such a difficult film to watch.
Like the eponymous donkey of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthasar, which regularly appears on lists of the greatest films ever made, Eo survives one calamity after another. He never takes the easy way out.
These films show us what it’s like to be an animal in a world full of humans who mistreat their fellow creatures. Almost every scene has something that can move viewers to tears. And some that are almost unbearable. That’s why the impulse to interpret them allegorically is overwhelming.
Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t a complete sadist watching them to the end. Then again, stories like EO imply that sadism might be a lot more natural for humans than we like to believe.
EO belongs to a particular subgenre of storytelling, related to the fables and fairy tales featuring animal protagonists, but focused on the conflict between modern civilization and innocence.
While there are countless examples of animals who do just that, we must remember that these stories are made by and for humans.
If we can imagine the pain and confusion that Eo the donkey is feeling, it is because we recognize our own experiences in his, only in a displaced form that breaks down our defence mechanisms.
One of the most striking scenes occurs right before we see Eo’s body lying on the ground, after he is savagely beaten by soccer hooligans who resent him for having become the mascot of their bitter rivals.
Mercifully, we do not see much of the beating itself. Instead, we cut to shots of a four-legged robot struggling to walk and then lying on its back, its metal legs flailing skyward in futility.
Then the robot manages to get up again and walk again, with increasingly confident steps, until it arrives at a mirrored surface in which it seems captivated by its own reflection.
After we see it walking down a mirrored funhouse hallway, we cut to a shot of another hallway, in what we soon learn is an animal hospital where large animals like horses are treated.
This interlude complicates our sense of the story. Although Skolimowski’s film follows most of the subgenre’s conventions, he periodically shifts into a kind of magic realism.
Instead of natural lighting and mise-en-scène, we get distorted shapes and monochromatic colours.
Considering where they fall in the narrative, these sequences are presumably intended to communicate the donkey’s perspective, giving us the impression of non-human subjectivity.
But what are we to make of this robot, then?
Is the persistence of this inanimate device a figure for the will to live? Or does it stand in somehow for the donkey’s “primitive” consciousness?
As Eo begins to stir, we see a few quick shots from the time when he worked for a circus and was lovingly cared for by the woman, Magda, who performed with him.
The idea, presumably, is that these memories are sustaining him in this dire hour.
Then we get another monochromatic shot, in the same bright red we saw when the robot was walking down the hallway, in which we see the donkey’s legs.
The animal seems to be dancing as if he were remembering the steps from his circus act.
Although animals have demonstrated over and over that they have the capacity to remember and return to the people they loved, sometimes traversing improbable distances – the plot of Lassie Come Home – the fact that we have continued to watch EO in spite of the suspicion that the story will end tragically invites us to think about this sequence in human terms.
We can only speculate what animals are thinking.
But we know from personal experience, not to mention a wealth of stories, that we humans compensate for suffering in the present by either recalling happier times in the past or imagining that we might return to them in the future.
Frequently, we are invited to see Eo as a silent witness to human brutality, a point driven home by close-ups of his eyes. When he savagely kicks an owner who is killing foxes for their coats, we assume that he is doing it out of a sense of solidarity with his fellow animals, whose suffering he cannot stand.
Once again, though, we must recognise that this interpretation requires us to identify with the donkey as if he were human, collapsing the distance between his experience, about which we can only speculate, and our own.
In contrast to most examples of its subgenre, EO shares with Au Hasard Balthasar, a self-reflexivity about our relationship with animals.
While we frequently see their equine protagonists bearing witness to the savagery humans exhibit both towards animals and each other, we are also permitted to witness that savagery independently of the donkey’s perspective.
Towards the end of the film, Eo arrives at the estate of a wealthy family far from Poland. It looks like an ideal place for him, with plentiful grass and lovely surroundings.
But once we see how members of the family interact beyond the reach of the donkey’s vision, it becomes clear that this superficial impression is deceiving. They are depraved.
When the door to the estate swings open to the accompaniment of ominous music, we understand that Eo feels the need to leave, even though it’s obviously unsafe to do so.
He can’t know what has been transpiring inside the house or even understand it as humans would. Yet he senses its fundamental wrongness and needs to flee its influence.
At least, that’s what we are encouraged to believe. Yet considering that Eo’s departure soon leads to his demise, this decision is hard to comprehend unless we consider its moral implications.
It seems that the donkey would rather sacrifice himself, accompanying a herd of cattle to slaughter, than have the chance to live out a relatively peaceful existence at the estate.
The implication is that he must renounce the world of humans completely because they are flawed in ways that cannot be fixed.
Balthasar doesn’t get the chance to make this choice in Bresson’s film, coming to a terrible end through no fault of his own.
From that perspective, the fact that Eo gets to decide his fate represents an improvement, however depressing that may seem to us.
In either case, however, how we feel about the way their stories end says more about how we regard ourselves than it does about our relationship with animals.
That’s the paradox of EO.
Even though Jerzy Skolimowski surely intended the film to be a passionate plea for treating animals more humanely, it also comes off as a call to stop treating each other like animals.
Screenshot courtesy of Janus Films. All rights reserved.