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The donkey is dead—or seems to be. He lies there, lifeless, in some strobe-lit, claret-colored abyss that has the feel, alternately, of a purgatorial hereafter and, once a pair of female human hands enter frame and gently caress his body, a warped erotic fantasy. It soon becomes clear, via a vertiginous overhead shot, that we are in one of the enclosures of a three-ring circus. Though since no audience is yet visible, we can't say for whom, exactly, this vaguely ritualistic interaction is being performed. The woman comes close to the donkey's mouth, breathing into it. He rises, effectively reborn, and is soon christened, after the title of Jerzy Skolimowski's phenomenal latest feature, EO.
Something about this setup and its stray components (the animal protagonist; the tender young woman; the overall holy/hellish aura) may seem familiar. That's because Skolimowski, who directed the film and co-wrote it with his frequent collaborator Ewa Piaskowska, is riffing on Robert Bresson's canonical 1966 masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar, which also, in the meagerest abstract, concerns itself with the life, and ultimate death, of a donkey.
But wait, actually… is he doing that? Some Internet sleuthing shows that Skolimowski has both embraced and downplayed the Balthazar comparisons. The original story was supposed to be about a dog, until Skolimowski and Piaskowska decided there was something more mythic and accessible about a donkey. When the movie began shooting pre-pandemic (its production stretched a full two years through COVID and across multiple locales), its working title was said to be the one-letter-off Baltazar. And during EO’s festival run, Skolimowski's reaction to the Bresson comparison has varied from reverential to puckish to dismissive, almost as if he is trying to muddy the official record.
This all tracks with the movie itself, which constantly shuffles its locations, jumbles its aesthetic approach, and upends any clear-cut thematic aims. As its opening suggests, EO is a punkish act of both resurrection and necromancy.
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