I discovered the 1960s arthouse donkey story Au Hasard Balthazar the way a lot of modern film nerds “discover” the largest looming titles in the Cinema Canon: I saw it on the Sight and Sound Top 100 poll. EO director Jerzy Skolimowski hails from an older, pre-internet world, though. When Au Hasard Balthazar was first earning a name for itself among critical devotees as noteworthy as Andrew Sarris & Jean-Luc Godard, Skolimowski was already a twentysomething filmmaker, striving to establish his own name as a world-class auteur. Half a century later, Skolimowski has revisited & reinterpreted Bresson’s reverent, observational tale of a noble donkey’s travels through an unjust world in his latest—and possibly last—feature film. EO does not at all feel like an old man reminiscing about the lost artistry of Euro cinema’s golden age, though. If anything, it only occasionally plays like a colorized TV edit of Au Hasard Balthasar. More often, it takes wild detours into an energetic, dreamlike approximation of what it might look like if Gaspar Noé directed Homeward Bound. It’s incredible that the film was made by a long-respected octogenarian, not a fresh-outta-film-school prankster with something to prove.
As you might expect, the titular EO is just as stoic & unknowable of a protagonist as Balthazar, as they are both nonverbal, unmagical donkeys. He also goes on similar one-off adventures, finding both kind-hearted animal lovers and totally heartless animal abusers on his slow trot towards death. The drunken football hooligans & incestuous trust-fund aristocrats of modern Europe might be mixed in with the farmers & carnies of olde, but the shape of humanity has not changed much since Balthazar left his hoof-prints all over provincial France. What has changed, though, is the exponential intrusion of human technology in the donkeys’ natural environment, confounding EO with strobe lights, lasers, and drones as he absentmindedly searches for a home. It’s in that alien machinery where Skolimowski separates his own vision from Bresson’s, often by flashing intense red gel lights to highlight the unique terror of our modern-tech hell world. Whether he’s mounting his camera to junkyard cranes or zooming in on a single donkey tear rolling down EO’s cheek, you can tell he’s having fun with the exercise of updating Au Hasard Balthazar as a conceptual experiment. And every time EO is confronted by a machine you could not imagine entering the frame of a Bresson picture, the film is at its most riveting.
I don’t know that EO has too much to say about the internal lives of animals nor the existential crises of life in general. I also don’t know that it’s trying to say anything. EO mostly just chews, breathes, and trots his way through most scenarios without much effect on their outcome. My biggest, most abstract question while following him around Europe was “What do donkeys dream?” Skolimowski supposes they dream out of jealousy for horses’ freedom, agility, and beauty, but it does not matter how much he is right about that. Waking life is a series of disconnected, emotionally taxing episodes that the immense beauty & terror of our dreams only occasionally interrupt as we steadily trot closer to death. EO cannot expect a happy ending to his life, because no life ends on its sweetest note. There’s plenty to wonder at & take comfort in along the way, though, as well as plenty villains & obstacles to avoid. Observing the world beyond those simple terms is likely a young artist’s game, but that doesn’t mean an old man can’t find a youthful exuberance in how he interprets what he sees. Since Skolimowski has nothing left to prove, you have to assume the playfulness & subversions of EO are only trotted out for the pure joy of filmmaking as an artform; I love that he’s held onto that as long as he has.