Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Writer:Jerzy Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska
Stars: Sandra Drzymalksa, Isabelle Huppert, and Lorenzo Zurzolo
Synopsis: Follows a donkey who encounters on his journeys good and bad people, experiences joy and pain, exploring a vision of modern Europe through his eyes.
Directors who choose to make films about christlike donkeys who retain their dignity in the face of unimaginable human cruelty inevitably end up risking associations with Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). That critically acclaimed masterwork has served as a touchstone for countless European auteurs, but very few are brave enough to wear their influences as heavily as Jerzy Skolimowski does. It has to be said that there’s something undeniably admirable about his audacious approach to bringing this homage to the screen. This is not one of those adaptations that strikes the viewer as a pale imitation of a truly original piece of art. Skolimowski transforms Bresson’s simple premise into an artistic vision that is very much his own and embeds his own directorial signatures into many of the film’s quieter moments.
Bresson’s film centered around Balthazar, a gentle creature who watches on as the humans who surround him exhibit different facets of the human condition. He envisioned his saintly donkey as a victim of humanity’s inherently destructive spirit, while still taking the time to highlight moments of grace and levity. Skolimowski shifts his focus to EO, an inquisitive donkey who yearns for total freedom, even as he wistfully recalls being cared for by Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). He changes hands frequently and frequently finds himself in the employ of indifferent aristocrats who wrestle with familial conflict. He never succeeds in settling down in one place or establishing a close bond with any of his owners but manages to avoid succumbing to ennui and despair.
At its most thrilling and inventive, the film makes a case for itself as an example of pure cinema. Skolimowski appears to be having the time of his life experimenting with all of the tricks that he has up his sleeve. His sense of enthusiasm is infectious and you find yourself getting caught up in his occasionally chilly vision of the modern world. We are constantly thrown off balance by Michał Dymek’s insistence upon setting the events of the film in a slightly surreal version of Europe. Every now and then, he launches into a completely nutty digression that expands the sweep and scope of the narrative. These passages introduce a lovely playful quality into the proceedings that only makes the turducken-like nature of individual sequences even more ingratiating.
The promotional shots of a nervous EO standing in the middle of a paddock don’t prepare viewers for an utterly thrilling sequence in which we are invited to see the world through his eyes. Suddenly, the world opens up and we are forced to reorient our perspective in a matter of seconds. It’s one of those set pieces that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. This is a spectacular, extravagant production, on the scale of its director’s most celebrated works and one worries that the film’s bombast will not fully register with the audience if viewers aren’t forced into a confrontational position. Amidst all of the deliberately jarring tonal shifts and wacky visual flourishes, it can be easy to lose a sense of the bigger picture. This is not a knock on the film itself but an acknowledgement that the theatrical experience gives audience members enough space to apply their critical thinking skills to the arthouse cinema that they consume.
However, it should be noted that one of the unexpected turns that the plot takes doesn’t pay dividends. When French superstar Isabelle Huppert pops up as the imperious chatelaine of an Italian estate that has fallen on hard times, she sets the film off course. She remains a charismatic screen presence but the strength and ferocity of her performance doesn’t mesh with Skolimowski’s overall vision for the project. Perhaps this disjunction was intentional and Huppert’s heavily stylized performance was supposed to introduce a layer of meta commentary into the plot. Other members of the cast achieve the desired result by tamping down their natural magnetism. It is difficult to create this effect without making the performances appear to be lifeless and inert. Somehow, the members of this cast get away with it for about 70 minutes and it’s still difficult to make any real complaints about a scene in which Huppert vamps around in an elegant frock for a couple of minutes.
For the most part, this is a stunning late career effort that suggests that loose remakes can and should play fast and loose with the rules and conventions that are typically attached to arthouse cinema. It’s not everyday that you encounter an 88-minute epic that could conceivably be a modest parable about man’s inhumanity to man or an allegorical representation of the ongoing climate crisis. You can get as pretentious as you want while generating theories about what it all means and nobody will judge you for it.
Grade – B+