Jerzy Skolimowski’s Wild and Kinetic EO

Jerzy Skolimowski’s Wild and Kinetic EO

Braying Through History

Jerzy Skolimowski’s wild and kinetic EO.

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Is it a paradox that the flashiest, wildest, most heedless—in short, the most youthful—movie I saw this past year would be EO, written and directed by Polish octogenarian Jerzy Skolimowski? Perhaps not. Skolimowski was a junior member of the Polish new wave, which broke in the mid-1950s with Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal and Andrzej Munk’s Eroica. Drafted at age 22 to doctor the script of Wajda’s 1960 “youth film” Innocent Sorcerers, he initiated his career as Polish cinema’s designated new-generation spokesman. Now, at age 84 and still as willful as a toddler, he has reworked one of the most revered movies ever made, Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar.

As in Balthazar, the eponymous protagonist of EO is a donkey—named for his bray by the young circus performer Kasandra (Sandra Dryzmalska) who loves and loses him. As a character, Eo is generally placid, patient, and largely reactive; as a movie, EO is loud, jagged, and kinetic. Skolimowski was a semiprofessional boxer in his youth, and he brings a pugilistic mentality to his films. The rhapsodic flurry of quick-cut feints and close-up jabs is followed by a knockout blow, be it a sudden act of violence, a bird plunging to earth, or the unexpected appearance of Isabelle Huppert. (Those who saw EO at Cannes report that this surprise cameo prompted astonished gasps.)

Over the film’s visceral 86 minutes, Eo is liberated from the circus and sent to a farm, where he spooks a prize stallion, and then to another, where he’s drafted to give pony rides to disabled children. Looking for Kasandra, who tracks him down only to disappear on her boyfriend’s motorcycle, Eo escapes into the spooky nocturnal woods, is briefly captured in a small town, and inadvertently becomes involved in a brutally competitive soccer match. Beaten badly by the losing team, he winds up in an animal hospital that is actually a mink farm. There, in his sole act of aggression, he impassively kicks (and possibly kills) a nasty attendant. A further series of increasingly inexplicable events lead Eo over the mountains into Italy, to a gated villa that might be mistaken for paradise and his final fate.

Albeit a donkey, Eo is a typical Skolimowski protagonist, haplessly wandering through an incomprehensible, violent, and dehumanized world. Is he a stand-in for the filmmaker? Skolimowski’s career has also had its mad zigzags and reversals. His first three features—Identification Marks: None, Walkover, and The Barrier—merged the traditional self-destructive romantic hero of Polish literature with the jazzy film techniques and cultural experiments of the 1960s, with Skolimowski himself appearing as the protagonist Andrzej Leszczyc in the first two. The movies established his international fame (all three were shown at the New York Film Festival, as was EO), and for a brief moment it appeared that Skolimowski’s reputation might rival that of Godard.

In 1967, Skolimowski made Le Départ in Belgium with the French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud. A third Leszczyc film, Hands Up, with Skolimowski again in the lead, was censored (its satire of Polish consumerism, as well as Stalinism, was apparently inopportune). Skolimowski, who considered Hands Up his best film, was “invited” to leave Poland and, like Polanski before him, relocated to London. His first English-language feature, Deep End, was a 1970 romantic thriller about a post-mod London starring Jane Asher as a working-class femme fatale. It got excellent notices—Andrew Sarris effusively called it “the best of Godard, Truffaut, and Polanski and then some”—but did little business.

Thereafter, Skolimowski alternated between literary adaptations (Nabokov, Turgenev, and Arthur Conan Doyle) and smaller dramas (including one made in Hollywood). Following his unsuccessful 1991 adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s dark comedy Ferdydurke, he retired from filmmaking for 17 years, returning to the medium (and Poland) with his Four Nights With Anna in 2008. That movie, like Deep End, was a story of sexual obsession that was well-received. Not so the equally remarkable Essential Killing, his 2010 ordeal film, which bore a family resemblance to The Passion of the Christ and starred Vincent Gallo as a jihadi who escapes a CIA black site in Poland and is hunted through a wintry landscape.

Donkeys are not notably expressive, but they do lend themselves to allegory. Still, cantering through an empty town, braying at a fish tank, Eo is less suggestive of the beast Christ rode into Jerusalem than the subject of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem: “The dog trots freely in the street / and has his own dog’s life to live / and to think about.” Eo is conscious, although his consciousness is beyond us. Similarly, the landscape he traverses at times resembles an alien planet. On another plane, however, he could be wandering through Polish history. The political do-gooders who liberate him from the circus suggest nothing so much as earnest Communists. The dark woods into which he escapes have Jewish tombstones. An anarchist sets him free to become swept up in the brutish tribalism of the soccer match. Like the soldiers of Anders’s Army during World War II, Eo crosses the mountains into Italy.

Film history, too. One cannot consider EO apart from Bresson’s heartbreaking and magnificent Au Hasard Balthazar, the story of a donkey’s life and death in rural France. The supreme masterpiece by one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers, Balthazar brings together all of Bresson’s ideas about acting, sound, and editing as well as grace, redemption, and human nature. Skolimowski has said that Balthazar is the only movie that ever moved him to tears. (It is also, as the Polish film critic Michal Oleszczyk pointed out, the one movie that topped Skolimowski’s Walkover on the 1966 Cahiers du Cinéma 10 Best List.)

Balthazar is austere and precise; EO is excessive and elusive. Both movies have spiritual qualities, but EO is more pagan. The winning soccer team’s orgiastic dance around the donkey suggests a barbaric rite. Bresson’s donkey is baptized by a group of children, thus setting his destiny in motion; in the fragmented, red-filtered, strobe-lit sequence that opens Skolimowski’s film, Kasandra might almost be making love to… something. Indeed, her circus act involves her seemingly bringing Eo back to life. Even after the circus scenes, the donkey appears to die and get resurrected at least twice—once, it would seem, by a stray sentient robot.

Balthazar’s transfixing final sequence gives the animal’s death a cumulative transcendent grandeur. That is not much of a theme in EO. Balthazar lives and suffers in a human world, but humans are only one species among many in Eo’s absurd universe. Thanks to a random act of carnage, he miraculously escapes being slaughtered for salami: Yet in its suggestion of the Treblinka death camp’s “road to heaven,” the abrupt finality of Eo’s off-screen fate evokes the darkest moment of 20th-century Polish history. Bresson was a Jansenist mystic; Skolimowski is a two-fisted existentialist. According to EO’s end credits, six donkeys shared the title role (and none, nor any other animals, were harmed in the course of filming). The beasts give EO an authenticity beyond human acting, without the trappings of rational meaning. Behind the veil of Skolimowski’s bravura technique, life simply is. N

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