Throughout her magisterial career, Tilda Swinton has often returned to one performance that inspires her as an actor – that of the lead donkey in 1966’s Au Hasard Balthazar. If history repeats itself, then Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO could well be the launchpad for a litany of new acting greats, its headline performances coming from six separate donkeys, all of whom make for magnetic screen presences, seamlessly swapping in and out to portray the eponymous ass in this strange and melancholic, yet also playful and silly, riff on the Robert Bresson classic.

We first meet EO under the disorienting red strobe lights of the circus at which he performs in a sort-of dance act with his loving trainer/handler Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). Swiftly, though, the circus is disbanded due to new animal safety legislation and EO is seized by the state, eventually winding up roaming the towns and countryside of Poland and northern Italy. It’s an odyssey of vignettes that also somewhat plays as a state of the nation address for modern Europe, EO’s journey taking him past a series of very human oddities, Skolimowski suggesting how much of our world an animal could possibly take in and understand through donkey POV shots that are at once placid and judgmental.

The donkeys are, of course, the star attraction here, their large neutral eyes inevitably acting as a mirror for both the audience and the humans of the story. Skolimowski can’t resist some anthropomorphising, showing us EO’s dreams and memories in ways that seem rather human, but there’s plenty of time put aside for him to simple be an animal – sometimes confused, sometimes frightened, sometimes genuinely content (these moments make for the most consistently affecting scenes in the film). Skolimowski also, amusingly, gives us suggestions of how a donkey might see other animals – through EO’s eyes, horses, in particular, come across as pampered and overemotional, a very fun little insight into the imagined social worlds of the animal kingdom.

It’s a journey both entertaining and very gruelling – the moments of cruelty towards EO are horrible (though always shot from his POV, meaning the real donkeys didn’t even have to be on set for the nastiness, which is a comfort) and plenty of other animals have a tough time of it, too; a scene at a fox-fur farm is borderline unwatchable. These scenes, inevitably, make for strong immediate emotional hits, but it does feel a bit like dramatic cheating to have cute animals constantly imperilled. It’s a problem especially pronounced in EO’s ending, which leans too heavily on its own sad inevitability to be as impactful as it probably should be.

Though the donkey side of the story is, like Au Hasard Balthazar, mostly committed to authenticity, the people feel far less real. Skolimowski’s script, co-written by Ewa Piaskowska, is often completely absurd as its human element pushes EO forward. Though this can be fun, there are scenes which are just distractingly ridiculous, especially once Isabelle Huppert gets involved for an extended cameo as a Countess with a quasi-incestuous relationship with her handsome Italian stepson (Lorenzo Zurzolo). The constant tonal shifts, while thematically consistent (the bizarreness on display feels like an honest reflection on how an animal might interpret human behaviour), often end up breaking the dreamlike immersion that EO’s visuals work so hard to create.

At over 80 years old, Skolimowski has clearly lost none of his fire and flair as a visual artist and EO’s formal ambition and invention is a delight to behold. From cameras mounted on donkeys to hellish reds filling the skies to dizzying aerial shots following an air turbine’s rotors around and around, pretty much every scene introduces a new formal gimmick. It’s great to see a director clearly having as much fun as Skolimowski is here (particularly impressive given how restrictive using animals on set can be), definitely using some moments to simply show off for the sake of it.

EO is mostly an absolutely fascinating experiment from start to finish, which is why its more familiar-feeling and contrived moments are so jarring. They never quite ruin proceedings, but this lack of consistency keeps this literally asinine adventure from fully measuring up to its inspirations.


Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

Written by Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska

Starring; Sandra Drzymalska, Isabelle Huppert, Lorenzo Zurzolo

Runtime: 88 mins

Rating: 15