Through a donkey’s eyes: Skolimowski’s EO investigates nonhuman animal perspective between realistic situations and evocative scenes (Film Review)
Bianca Friedman (CfHAS PhD researcher)
With Jenny in The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) and Eo in the homonymous film, it really seems that the current Oscar selection has given some sort of special spotlight to donkeys. But while Jenny remains a lateral character, even though essential for the construction of her human, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski fully engages in telling the story of Eo as the film protagonist.
This film shares narrative features with other successful equine-focused stories adapted to the big screen such as Black Beauty (1971; 1994; 2020) and War Horse (2011), especially in proposing an episodic structure that allows to follow the donkey protagonist through a range of situations, living conditions and relationships with both human and nonhuman animals, in his unpredictable journey from Poland to Italy. Representing an equine as employed in a variety of human contexts and for human purposes is what characterises horse narratives that adhere to the Black Beauty model. This choice is particularly in line and responding to the extreme variety of roles and identities that equines can have within human societies. Indeed, Eo finds himself both involved as a performer in a circus, a beast of burden, a pet therapist, a mascot and potential livestock, and witnessing the comédie humaine in its many absurd, gentle and violent manifestations.
However, Skolimowski deeply engages with non-narrative and poetic cinema and exploits the film-specific potential by including virtuosic and expressionist images and sounds to evoke ideas about the protagonist’s point of view. As Nagel (1974) argues, it is impossible to access what the experience of a nonhuman animal is like, and it seems that Eo does not want to provide a simple answer to that question. For instance, the opening scene combines red diegetic flashes illuminating the circular arena with some disorientating and out-of-focus shots in slow motion of Eo and his female co-performer, who softly whispers his name. Can extreme confusion and estrangement coexist with emotional attachment? Can a donkey be sad in a donkey-sanctuary where all his conspecifics are strangers? As that scene shows, he goes back in his dreams to the positive relationship with his female co-performer that took place in a highly exploitative environment. How does a donkey feel about those horses around him, so much taller and bigger than him, that the camera often shows through a subjective shot with blurred borders or in slow-motion close-ups? Many shots seem to initially coincide with his visual point of view, as the camera frantically moves with a low angle and blurred borders through the surrounding nature, when it is actually looking for Eo, as he wanders across Europe, cities, prairies and forests. Whether he encounters or imagines human technologies, from windmill turbines to zoomorphic robots, he could feel threatened, amazed, puzzled, or something else.
Also, the film exploits sound editing to emphasise donkey’s sensorial apparatus. Not only is breath generally privileged over brays, but the soft sound that is produced by hands caressing his fur or mane, towards which his ears are oriented, highlights both donkey’s fine hearing and the relevance of touch as the channel for an embodied empathy (Parkinson, 2018). By seeing those close-ups on Eo being touched and caressed and by hearing that morbid sound, spectators’ participation as sensitive and communicative bodies is triggered and they are invited to feel closer to the donkey protagonist. Consequently, this sensually overwhelming and visually evoking exploration of donkey agency ranges from pleasant moments of genuine affection to painful aggressions and mistreatments, in front of which spectators are left in all their deepest frustration.
So, EO seems to inherit and homage Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar by telling a story of a donkey who bonds with a human female character, who shows deep affection for him unlike other humans, but abandons its religious focus (Skolimowski in Kasman, 2022) and seems to privilege instances of animal advocacy. The narrative device of estrangement, that allows to avoid any precise explanation, is used to denounce some awfully violent human-animal relationships which take place in non-specified places. Throughout the whole film, we never really know where Eo exactly is or where he is going, we can only guess it from the change in human languages, but it does not really matter. By constructing spectators’ embodied empathy and by triggering their imagination through a poetic use of images, colours and sounds, the film questions the donkey’s perspective, creates a connection between Eo’s and viewers’ disorientation and at the same time underlines the absurdity of any form of violence.
Bibliography and filmography
Au Hasard Balthazar [film]. 1966. ROBERT BRESSON dir. France and Sweden: Argos Films, Athos Films, Parc Film.
Black Beauty [film]. 1971. JAMES HILL dir. UK, Spain, West Germany: Tigon British Film Production, Chilton Films, CCC Filmkunst
Black Beauty [film]. 1994. CAROLINE THOMPSON dir. UK, USA: Warner Bros
Black Beauty [film]. 2020. ASHLEY AVIS dir. USA, UK, South Africa, Germany, France: Bolt
Pictures, Constantine Films Ldt., Moonlight Films
EO [film]. 2022. JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI dir. Poland and Italy: Skopia Film, Alien Films
KASMAN, D., 2022. The Donkey’s Eyes: Jerzy Skolimowski Discusses “EO”. Notebook [online]. Available from: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-donkey-s-eyes-jerzy-skolimowski-discusses-eo [Accessed 19 February 2023]
NAGEL, T., 1974. What Is It Like to Be a Bat?. The Philosophical Review. 83 (4), pp. 435- 450.
PARKINSON, C., 2018. Animal Bodies and Embodied Visuality. Antennae: Journal of Nature in Culture. 46, pp. 51-64.
The Banshees of Inisherin [film]. 2022. MARTIN MCDONAGH dir. UK, USA and Ireland: Searchlight Pictures, Film 4, Blueprint Pictures