Cannes 2022: Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘EO’ donkey takes us to a New Cinematic World

At 84, will the great Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski change the course of the Cannes Film Festival? His film EO (“Hi-Han”), nominated for the Palme d’Or, looks at our world through the eyes, ears and moods of a donkey. It is his impressions that provoke the images and sound effects of the film and guide us during the crossing of this story told as a new form of cinema in the making. Overwhelming.

From our special correspondent at the Cannes Film Festival,

Hi Han. We stay on earth, at the same time, we have the feeling of being on another planet. At the beginning of the film, there is love between Magda and a donkey. In the end, everything was done so that love arose for a cinema capable of giving us access to another world, to a less anthropocentric world – through new images and surprising out-of-frames, unexpected noises and sans suddenly audible voices, without forgetting the jolts of a donkey’s soul as tangible as the blue of the sky.

With EO, Polish cinema is in great shape. After The balconythe documentary gem by Pawel Lozinksi awarded the Grand Prix du Fipadoc 2022 for his feat of producing a cinematographic work as philosophical as it is hilarious by filming passers-by on the sidewalk in front of his building for two and a half years, Jerzy Skolimowski shows us at the Festival Cannes that at 84 you can still invent a new cinema.

When the camera tilts

When the story ofEO starts, we still have the illusion of watching a movie on a donkey. Magda, a tightrope walker in a small animal circus, loves Hi-Han more than anything. Their artistic number full of osmosis is one of the strengths of Cirque Orion. And even outside of the show, woman and donkey seem to live together with a total understanding that, of course, is beyond words. Then came protesters considering the existence of animal circuses as animal abuse. A new law banning animal shows means the closure of the circus. The “living goods” are confiscated, Hi-Han is sent to a stud farm far from Magda. It’s the beginning of an Odyssey, both for the donkey and for us.

Because, precisely, at this moment of the forced departure, an enormous observation imposes itself on us: the camera no longer focuses on Magda’s tears, but switches to the pain of the donkey. And bright red flicker and green lasers screw up our usual vision. This visual diversion takes us into unknown territory

With the steps of a donkey in a New World

The close-up that plunges us into the donkey’s eyes pushes our gaze to cross the door to another universe, more conditioned by human concerns. For an hour and a half, between farms and stud farms, between roads and streams, between forests and mountains, between Poland and Italy, we live on the big screen the experiences and perceptions of the donkey. To the rhythm of a donkey’s steps, we enter a New World, sometimes accompanied by grandiose music, from Beethoven to Pawel Mykietyn, often simply listening to the concert of nature.

“EO” (“Hi-Han”), by Jerzy Skolimowski, in the running for the Palme d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. © Aneta Gebska i Filip Gebski

The EO donkey is not only the main actor in the film, it is his vision that takes precedence over everything else. In a way, Jerzy Skolimowski accepts the job of assistant to a donkey-turned-director. His feeling drives the directions and reactions of the camera and the microphone, the choice of frames, movements and colors of the images. To us, spectators, Skolimowski assigns a new place. Everything must change, our visual certainties, our auditory filters, our perspective, our priorities.

It’s not a wildlife movie or a road movie on the tribulations of a little donkey. We don’t observe Hi-Han, we follow him. To understand the story, we must understand and perceive his own world, with all the imperfections, inadequacies and misunderstandings that this entails.

The gaze of other species on the nonsense of men

Stupidities are not found in animals, but in men and women. Throughout the film, EO discovers the stupidities and hypocrisies of the man: hooligans ready to beat up the others after a lost match; the preaching of the priest after an incestuous relationship with his mother; some protecting animal life at all costs, and others, consumers of filthy slaughterhouse products and donkey salami…

Shifting our gaze to bring in the realities and reasoning of nature and other existences more than human existence is a major trend in current cinema, and also palpable in the first films presented in competition at Cannes. In Tchaikovsky’s wifeRussian director Kirill Serebrennikov is obsessed with a fly to express the unthinkable.

In the work of Arnaud Desplechin, Brother and sister, a house immersed in nature and isolated from society is the only way for the brother not to be devoured by hatred. And in The Otto Mountain, by Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix van Groeningen, each of the two friends rediscovers the essence of themselves in the mountains. At the international level, so far, it is Rithy Panh who has pushed the reflection on a non-anthropocentric cinema the furthest. In his “sensational” dystopia Everything Will Be Ok, Silver Bear at the Berlinale 2022, the actors are replaced by clay figurines and the man is no longer the center of the world. A cynical boar now rules the world…

When the braying donkey meets the neighing horse

But with EO, Jerzy Skolimowski takes yet another step in this anti-anthropocentric cinema by entrusting the queens of his feature film to a donkey and by encouraging interaction with other species. In EO, the fox’s cunning meets the owl’s gaze; the braying donkey meets the neighing horse, the yelping fox, the howling wolf or the growling pig. And the groping of the muzzles replaces the kisses. Result: when the donkey is hungry, we show ourselves as excited as him in front of a carrot necklace. Otherwise, we settle for a shot on a haystack instead of the usual diner scene at the restaurant.

And when EO once again escapes from the wickedness of men, we see him follow the meanders of a simple stream. The immersion in nature and the cinematographic interpretation of the life of animals, flowers or trees create spaces of freedom for formal innovations. In the almost square format chosen for the film, upside-down, deformed, alienated images appear, turned in circles to reflect the world differently. Skolimowski bows to the incredible aesthetic of a colony of bats flying through the golden orange of a tunnel. With him, we no longer see the blades of a wind turbine rotating, but the breath of the wind which makes the image swirl. The filmmaker shares with us the impressionistic green of a forest and the unbiased look at happy children once called handicapped.

With EO, the Cannes Film Festival opened a small window in the direction of less anthropocentric films. When climbing the stairs, the donkey could not be present at the screening of his film, like his assistant director, Jerzy Skolimowski.

Who is Jerzy Skolimowski?

Jerzy Skolimowski, director of
Jerzy Skolimowski, director of “EO” (“Hi-Han”), in the running for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. © Maciej Komorowski

Jerzy Skolimowski, born in 1938 in Lodz, says he is marked until today by his childhood during the Second World War. His father, a member of the Polish resistance, died in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Jerzy himself will help his resistant mother to hide leaflets under her bed… After the war, his mother works as a cultural attaché in Prague where Jerzy will be a classmate of Vaclav Havel.

Going through poetry and literature, he arrives at the cinema by writing screenplays. first for Innocent charmers by Andrzej Wajda, then for The knife in the water, the first feature film by Roman Polanski, met at the National Film School in Lodz. At the start of his career, his cinematic influences ranged from revolutionary Breathless of Godard, the very innovative Citizen Kane of Orson Welles, the fascinating cinematographic writing of eight and a half by Federico Fellini and the disturbing Cul-de-sac by Polansky.

Very quickly, he became one of the legends of the New Polish cinema of the 1960s. His international career began at the age of 29, after the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival in 1967 for Departure. In 1978, he won his first major distinction at Cannes, the Grand Jury Prize for The Sorcerer’s Cry. Essential Killing lui won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2010. Six years later, she awarded him an Honorary Golden Lion for his extraordinary career. In contrast, in Soviet-era Poland, his work was often seen as too westernized. Hands upmade in 1967, was even banned there until 1981.

He is also reputed to be always extremely demanding with himself. For example, deeply disappointed with Ferdydurkereleased in 1991 and considered by him to be ” [s]we worst movie he stopped making films for almost two decades. During this time, he devoted himself to painting, but also accepted to play as an actor, among others for David Cronenberg. Today, his return with EO is a great declaration of love to cinema, more particularly to the legendary film by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Random balthazarreleased in 1966. One day, Skolimowski confessed in relation to this chronicle of a Stations of the Cross suffered by a donkey: it is ” the only movie that moved me to tears “. With EOhis film full of rage, poetry and revolution, he surpassed the original and created a new dimension for auteur cinema.

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Cannes 2022: Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘EO’ donkey takes us to a New Cinematic World