Hit the Road, Jack

Jerzy Skolimowski discusses his donkey odyssey

Jerzy Skolimowski, EO, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 88 minutes.

THE WORLD HAS SELDOM if ever seemed at once as ravishingly beautiful and beset with menace and cruelty as in EO, where it is imagined by Jerzy Skolimowski through the eyes—no, the entire perceptual system—of a donkey. EO (named for the hee-haw sound these animals make) performs in a circus with Kasandra, a young woman who dotes on him like Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a love that is nurturing and tinged with eroticism. When Kasandra abandons him, riding off on the back of a motorcycle with the man who abused him, EO trots after her, but in dodging an oncoming car, he loses her trail and plunges, “au hasard,” into a deep forest.

Yes, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (always in the top five of my ridiculous “greatest films ever” list) was a starting point for Skolimowski, who once said that Balthazar was the only film that made him cry. But EO is far more radical in its form. EO is its sole protagonist, while Bresson’s film is split between a donkey and a girl, and, as Skolimowski has observed, Bresson is more interested in the girl. EO is also more modern, in that it speaks directly to the horror of our destruction of the natural world and its nonhuman inhabitants without bringing God into the picture. It is a film in which images of the natural world transcend our ordinary vision, in part because they are made strange through our empathy with EO. Skolimowski, in his refusal to anthropomorphize his donkey, shows him as a wonder and a mystery, so by extension is the sky above him—a veritable firmament, once swirling reds, once vaulting blues—or the rushing waterfall from a hydroelectric dam as EO stands—small, sturdy, and seemingly fearless—on a narrow bridge that crosses it. No less wonderous is the sight of EO grazing on the manicured lawn of an Italian palazzo while inside a woman (Isabelle Huppert, no less) fights with her incestuous lover. It is all poetry, the images of life and death, and the sounds—concrete and musical, but with hardly any words—that merge with and intensify what we see. A veteran of some twenty movies, many of them as tough and ironic as he himself is at age eighty-four, Skolimowski has made a film that in its delicacy and grandeur is in a class by itself. And which, by the way, might have the effect of making a few viewers reconsider their meat-eating habits. At Cannes, where EO won the grand jury prize, the director thanked all six donkeys who embodied EO. “We made it,” Skolimowski says every chance he gets, “out of our love of animals.”

AMY TAUBIN: It’s lovely to see you, if only on Zoom. I don’t say this lightly, but EO is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I thought that after the first time I saw it, but after seeing it a second time, I’m even more certain. I was nervous about going back because I had such a strong emotional reaction the first time. I can no longer go back to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar because I begin to weep as soon as I hear the donkey’s bray in the opening seconds. And you clearly acknowledge the relationship between your film and Bresson’s. But let’s talk more concretely: What made you go back to filmmaking after a break of seven years? And what made you decide to make a film about the odyssey of a donkey?

Robert Bresson, Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. Balthazar and Marie (Anne Wiazemsky).

JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: Even before this break of seven years, I took a longer break from filmmaking between 1992 and 2005. It’s a complex situation. Besides being a filmmaker, I am a painter. I really love to paint, and I can’t paint while working on a film because filmmaking is hard and takes a lot of energy. And because I developed into a respectable artist who has had many exhibitions, I now have a crew of managers and sellers. And they needed product, as they call it. But I was thinking all the time about what my next film should be. Ewa Piaskowska, who is my cowriter, coproducer, and also my wife, had the same thoughts as I did. We were both fed up with the linear narration of the movies. It had become boring for me to tell a story from A to Z, step by step. In my previous film, 11 Minutes, I tried to ruin that linearity. I wasn't entirely happy with the film, but at least I made the first step. Then I had the idea that if I introduced an animal character, it would get me closer to what I want to achieve, first, because there would be much less dialogue, and secondly, because this animal would not be introduced the way a human character is. It would require material that wasn’t simply to serve the story. That turned out to be right. I had to shoot quite a lot around the animal just to get some bits and pieces that would present the character.

Once we decided on this line of action, we had to choose what animal it would be. We immediately refused the most typical ones, dogs and cats, because there were so many films about dogs and cats, some of them embarrassing. Purely by chance, we met the desired animal in Sicily. We used to spend winters in Sicily because the weather in Poland between December and March is really severe. In the winter of 2019 to 2020, we discovered during the Christmas period that in a nearby village there is a Nativity celebration that involves thousands of people. It looks nice, very colorful, funny, noisy, you know. These attractions are in perhaps a hundred different places, and the audience is brought in by buses. They form a line to go from place to place until, at the very end, there is a little barn. When you get close to it, you hear an incredible noise made by all kinds of animals, who are very agitated. When you enter, you see maybe sixty animals—chicken, geese, pigs, sheep, cows, and one huge bull. And in the middle, Saint Joseph, tall in a long robe, holding the staff. He looks a little like the Oscar. Next to him is Mary, holding the baby. But the animals capture all the attention.

Suddenly a chicken flew over Saint Joseph’s head. I followed her as she landed on the other side of the barn, and there, deep in the background, standing alone, close to the wall, motionless, silent, was a donkey. I was immediately fascinated because the donkey was a part of the show and at the same time, he wasn’t. He kept his distance. He stood there with wide-open eyes. The donkey’s eyes are enormous in proportion to its face. And in these enormous, melancholic eyes, both expressive and mysterious, I found a comment on what was going on, and the comment was probably the same as mine. That yes, all these people are performing, but it doesn’t make sense. And the donkey somehow intimated that yes, I share that attitude of an observer who doesn’t participate but with his presence alone makes a comment. His eyes rarely moved from one object to another. He was like a camera placed for a master shot. He sees everything but doesn’t point out any details as being important. He is just there. Eva also was glued to the donkey. At that moment, we both felt that this is the animal who could be the lens of the future film. We immediately thought of the Kuleshov effect—you know, the Russian filmmaker who showed how if you take a close-up of a man’s face and then cut to a piece of bread, we would read the expression on his face as hunger, but if we took the same close-up and followed it with a weapon, we would read his expression as murderous. I knew that if I used the donkey and then cut to details of each scene, I would have a multilayered commentary on what is happening.

Jerzy Skolimowski, EO, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 88 minutes.

AT: A major part of my background is avant-garde film, so I thought of Stan Brakhage, who had many images of donkeys in his films. He talked about how the donkey’s peripheral vision is much wider than ours because of the placement of the donkey’s eyes.

JS: Yes. We investigated this. It’s the same for horses. We tried a special lens that was wider, but it was just uncomfortable to look it and it would have tired the audience, and it really didn’t bring us closer to the experience of the donkey.

AT: I also thought of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which you reference many times in EO. I remember you saying that it was the first film that brought you to tears and after that, you never cried again watching a film. Balthazarhas long been on my greatest-movies-of-all-time list, but I can no longer watch it because I begin crying as soon as I hear the donkey’s bray in the opening seconds. Both films begin with this paradisical relationship between the donkey and the young woman who nurtures him. And in both films, she abandons him because she has other priorities. But Bresson’s narrative is split between the donkey and the girl, and it ends with the beatification of Balthazar. Your film is tougher: The young woman disappears after the early scenes, although one has the sense that the donkey’s odyssey is to find her again—he has a memory of paradise that you show in brief, always red-tinted, soft-focused imagery, as if he remembers her with all his senses. I felt throughout the film that I was inside the sensory experience of EO—what he saw, what he heard, what he smelled. The young woman’s hand caressing him. I know that is only my imagination, but it is a richer experience than if the film were simply a kind of map of the donkey’s view of the world outside himself.

JS: I agree with you that was probably our task to achieve such a reception. But of course, it’s a pure fantasy of the scriptwriters and the director. We don’t know, scientifically, what is going on in a donkey’s mind. But still, I tried to imagine, as we shot, what this animal was thinking. And as you must know, it isn’t easy to work with donkeys. They are known for stubbornness, which is true, and for stupidity, which is not. It wasn’t always possible to achieve what we wanted, but they are extremely intelligent, diligent, sensitive, lovely animals. I liked that animal so much that I kept spending my time—when we were preparing the next shot, or when we had a lunch break—with the donkey, whispering gentle words to him all the time. Something happened, a feeling of coexistence. We really felt that at that very moment, it’s like two of us against the rest of the world. That here, the energy, the motivation to exist, is only with us, him and myself, myself and him. And that was a very strong bond. And I think because I achieved that with the animal, he was less stubborn than usual.

Jerzy Skolimowski, EO, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 88 minutes.

AT: Have you ever worked with a human actor in that way?

JS: No, no, no. With actors, I wouldn’t whisper gently in their ears.

AT: Let me ask you about the extraordinary sequence in which the donkey, who has been beaten nearly to death by soccer hooligans, is crawling through the underbrush, and you show him not as a flesh-and-blood animal, but as a metal robot. I am about the same age as you, and I have arthritis in my spine, and on damp days, I feel as if my entire body is made of rusty metal. And I thought that EO must be feeling that same kind of pain, and that his body has become an alien thing.

JS: Excellent interpretation. I wanted to achieve two things. First of all, I wanted to express the feeling of the donkey when being beaten. So when the robot falls down on the ground, we want him to get to be able to get up and continue walking. But I also wanted to communicate that because of our attitude toward animals, because we mistreat them and fail to care for them, we will lose them. They are our partners in nature, and what happens when they are gone? We would have mechanic animals, and how will we treat them? Would we whisper gently to the robots?

AT: Earlier, you spoke about how you were tired of a linear narrative with those kinds of causal connections. Do you think that EO, partly because of its use of visual metaphor, is closer to poetry than prose? Do you make that distinction?

JS: Yes, very much. As a young man, I was a poet. I even published a couple of books of poems.

AT: One last question: Most of your films are exceptionally vivid in their use of color. This film is both vivid and lyrical in its imagery. So I want to ask specifically about the cinematography in EO.

JS: For this film, we ended up using three different DPs. We started with one of the best Polish DPs, Michael Englert. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and unfortunately, he got Covid after the first few days of shooting, and no one knew how long it would take for him to recover. He proposed that we continue with his much younger colleague, Michal Dymek, whose work I liked. I listened to some of his ideas about the film, and I pushed him to go further and to not put any limits on what he wanted to do, to really do it as an avant-garde movie, because I want this film to look very modern. We had some incredible photography from him, but he couldn’t finish the film, unfortunately, because when we started collaborating with him, we didn't know that the shooting period would last from January 2020 to March 2022, in part because of Covid. And Dymek had a contract to do a film in Taiwan, so he had to leave. And he was very difficult to replace because by then we had some very unusual cinematography. It was only through great effort that we got an old friend and a great DP, Pawel Edelman, to step in for a few days, and we managed to finish the film with Pawel. All of them were willing to risk their reputation to do this movie. We used only their best stuff. But in order to get the best, they had to risk that some of the shots could be called totally unprofessional. DPs are usually careful not to do anything which could be considered imperfect, because if the director suddenly decides to use an imperfect shot, the blame goes to the camera people, not to the director. But those guys, fortunately, trusted me not to use their imperfection.

EO opened in New York on November 18 and will open in Los Angeles on December 2.