EO Blu-ray Review: The Secret Life of Donkeys

EO is a happy circus donkey, content to travel with his raggedy troupe to rural outposts in Europe. He’s motivated by the love of his trainer and caretaker, a young lady who always takes time to show him affection. 

When animal rights protesters descend on the circus complaining about their perception of inhumane animal treatment, the already shaky circus is forced to disband, leaving EO homeless and separated from his trainer. This sets him on a perilous series of misadventures across multiple countries to track down his only sense of security, his trainer. 

Director and co-writer Jerzy Skolimowski constructs the plot in a haphazard manner befitting an animal trying to make sense of navigating the human world. EO trots from one vignette to the next, experiencing highs and lows with no idea what may come next. Since there’s no narration, Skolimowski leans too heavily on anthropomorphizing EO’s actions to provide context, such as when EO dishes out retribution to a man mistreating another animal, or when EO decides to casually take in a soccer game as a spectator.

Since most of the film is simply EO traversing the Polish countryside, it’s a visceral shock when Isabelle Huppert’s legendary visage suddenly fills the screen, late in the film and completely out of the blue. She only has a brief part, but we’re led to believe that she’s a rich Italian lady whose adult son temporarily adopts EO as a pet on their expansive grounds. While her presence clearly adds star power to an otherwise complete cast of unknowns, it’s so surprising that it fully derailed my attention from EO’s story while I pondered her involvement and her character’s purpose in the film. The only plot benefit is the indication that EO has somehow traveled from Poland to Italy, driving home just how far afield his adventures have taken him.

A word of warning: if you think you know where the film is going, you most definitely do not. Let’s just say that Skolimowski is not interested in a Disney ending, as already evidenced earlier in the film by EO’s brutal beating at the hands of disgruntled soccer hooligans. The end of EO’s quest is so abrupt and unexpected that it sours the goodwill built up by his mostly positive road trip, although it’s certainly an indelible conclusion that seems purposely designed to condemn the animal rights activists who forced him on his path.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with 5.1 surround sound. The photography is especially impressive thanks to cinematographer Michal Dymek, with some artfully staged shots that elevate the whole project. Gems include EO standing on a curved bridge in front of a gently cascading dam, trotting along a desolate hillside framed by windmills, and exploring nature at the break of dawn just as colors begin to pierce the darkness.

EO is released under Criterion’s new Janus Contemporaries line, an offshoot focused on first-run films fresh from their theatrical runs, in association with the Criterion Channel. As such, the Blu-ray is housed in a standard Criterion case, but doesn’t bear a Criterion badge or spine number. Bonus features also don’t seem to be as prevalent, at least in this case, with only a conversation with the director and producer, an introduction to the six donkeys who play EO, and a trailer. 

It’s hard to believe that a virtually wordless film about a donkey in Poland could be so moving and entertaining, but Skolimowski has pulled off a minor miracle here. EO won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, well-deserved accolades for this unforgettable project. 

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Steve Geise

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