2022 ended with the British film industry converting Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru into Living. 2023 begins with the Polish veteran Jerzy Skolimowski either remaking or riffing on Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. Both projects are far from the fist-in-mouth disasters they might have been, yet neither entirely shakes the idea that the cinema is struggling to conceive of a viable forward path for itself; even those directors who aren't retreating into outright reminiscence appear stuck with their head over their shoulders, backtracking along tried-and-tested arthouse routes. (When Nicolas Winding Refn announces his update of The Seventh Seal next year, we can officially call cinema's time of death.) As early as its opening title card, EO is turning circles, setting its eponymous hero - a donkey; his name is apparently the Polish equivalent of ee-aw - down in the dispiriting confines of a touring circus's big top. And this is the highlife: thereafter, he trots downhill in poor Balthazar's hoofprints. Liberated from the circus, EO is employed as a corporate mascot (where he at least gets a necklace of carrots for his troubles), taken in by a working farm (only to be overlooked in favour of the poncy show ponies, suggesting some equine class system; his eventual escape involves a nice sight gag), resurfaces in a muddy, impoverished backwater, incurs the wrath of football fans, gets an unlikely twirl around the dancefloor, goes through the donkey version of rehab, and is finally - brutally - dispatched to the knackers' yard. It's the circle of life, in a way - and a hell of a role for the six donkeys credited with playing EO. Take a bow Tako, Ola, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela; next to them, Cate Blanchett's Lydia Tár begins to seem a trifle underexercised.
Whether or not you buy into EO as fiction will depend upon your readiness to project emotion onto a creature who, by his or her very nature, cannot act in a way, say, even Gerard Butler can act. (Favourable responses to the film are as the "aww"s occasioned in petting zoos.) As allegory for Man's Suffering, EO can't work because, as wasn't the case with its inspiration, its construction and execution keep getting in your face and in the way - Skolimowski's plainly enjoying himself too much, in short. (Bresson never thought of blaring death metal over the ride into oblivion, for better or worse.) Only auteurist noblesse oblige can account for the film's madly pinballing tone: why it resembles a kids' film until the scene where somebody gets their throat slashed, and then sends on Isabelle Huppert for an utterly baffling cameo. For a while, though, the film proves diverting enough as one of the Polish cinema's documentary-adjacent texts: non-fiction, accompanying a donkey or six as they have a jolly day out in artfully shot and lit locations. In this reading, EO would be as the cow in Andrea Arnold's Cow, given greater freedom to roam - from inner city to Poland's rural outreaches - before arriving at much the same destination. EO is never less than visually dynamic: one minute, Skolimowski's ziplining his camera over a river, the next he's falling in synch with a churning wind turbine. That makes it move, yes, but nothing here comes close to the austerely involving and affecting Bresson film. EO makes quite a good advert for donkeys - steadfast, docile, a handy way of getting from A to B, and Skolimowski pays his weary four-legged trooper-in-chief the compliment of shooting him like a 7 Series BMW. But does a dotty footnote like this deserve an Oscar nod ahead of Decision to Leave? One again concludes the Academy is an ass.
EO opens in selected cinemas from Friday.