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Donkey Work

EO and the cinema of animal suffering

What does the pained animal signify? To Descartes, next to nothing. In the eminent dualist’s opinion, animals were mere automata, complex mechanisms capable of acting out love, anger, and fear without actually feeling them. Lacking minds, and therefore souls, animals could only ever appear to suffer, reflecting our experiences but never actually experiencing them. To humans alone remained the province of pain.

Descartes’s view is often dragged out to illustrate the barbarism of a darker age. But what if his dualism in fact marked a substantial break? In his 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger argues that, until the time of Descartes, humans and animals lived in such close and such regular proximity that any hard distinction between the two would have been impossible to imagine. Humans are animals, of course. But more significantly, men looked at animals to see and understand themselves, defining their own humanity through metaphors that often merged the experiences of human and animal. Hence Homer’s comparison of Menelaus to a mountain lion, or the human-animal hybrids found in caves across the world—often painted, Berger notes, in the animals’ own blood. Yet even Berger’s sensitive eye rests more on humans than their animal counterparts. When Berger looks at animals, he sees how humans see themselves.

Is this not an apt description of the cinema of animal suffering? An on-screen animal always symbolizes, stands-in-for, and no more so than when they are in agony. Their pain is used to illustrate any number of human sins—sadism, cynicism, greed, indifference—especially those which cannot be shown, not for real. Think of the horse tumbling, broken and gushing blood, down the stairs in Andrei Rublev, a piercing moment of real death amid a moving symphony of the fake stuff. The sham snuff-film at the center of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust gets a queasy boost from the on-screen slaughter of a menagerie of wild animals. Jean Renoir’s apocalyptic The Rules of the Game turns on the tragic murder of a daring, love-struck airman, but it truly peers into the abyss during a central hunt sequence, in which the story’s callow aristocrats slaughter hundreds upon hundreds of rabbits, pheasants, and other game animals. The bloodbath goes on for minute after interminable, intoxicating minute. One adorable animal after another dashes forward only to get blown away, for real, on camera. The film moves on to more intrigue, more distraction, more melodrama and tragedy, but leaves this pyramid of shattered bodies standing tall at the core. A character even says of the man who dies: he dropped like an animal in the hunt. All of these animals had to perish so that one man could pretend to. Their pain primes us to believe his.

An on-screen animal always symbolizes, stands-in-for, and no more so than when they are in agony.

We don’t kill animals onscreen anymore; not intentionally, anyway. But their conscription into our narratives serves the same function: to provide a true reaction. People act; animals just are. Even when an animal is not literally in their death throes, we rest assured that there is something genuine about their distress. We force animals to feel for us, then assume that we are watching something authentic, truer than ourselves.

Is this entirely accurate? If we accept that animals have memories and emotions and internal lives (and they do), isn’t it likely that they only allow us to see certain parts of themselves—and that, of these, we only notice a small fraction? What might a cinema look like that treats animals as something other than metaphor-generating machines or human stand-ins?

At a recent event held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the director Jerzy Skolimowski described how, when first viewing Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, he had found the film’s equine star so honest and authentic that he truly believed he had seen the donkey die on-screen. Skolimowski was at the museum to promote his Cannes Jury Prize-winning film, and Poland’s Oscar-shortlisted submission for Best International Feature Film, EO, a project which earnestly attempts to inhabit the mind of an animal.

EO opens on a scene of pure disorientation. The music pulses; the camera cuts; red light strobes; and gradually, we make out the figure of a young woman with a donkey collapsed beneath her. She whispers his name, kneads his fur, kisses his face. We might be watching an animal in the moments before death. Then the lights come up, and the camera holds on one staggering image as Eo leaps up to reveal that everything we have just seen—the agony, the struggle, the triumph—has been an act. The woman, Kassandra (Sandra Drzymalska), claps to the audience and leads Eo from a circus ring.

The circus is no eden. The ring is dingy, Eo’s quarters are cramped, and he’s made to pull scrap by an oaf with a whip. But he has Kassandra’s love, her care and attention, her recognition that he is not just an animal or a donkey, but Eo. This reprieve doesn’t last long: very quickly, the circus goes bankrupt, the animals are seized, and Eo is cast out into a world defined by cruelty and alienation. This begins his peripatetic journey through a society actively hostile to even the concept of animal life. He is pulled along by people who see him in the abstract and driven onward by his memory of Kassandra’s love.

Still from Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). | Criterion

Skolimowki’s film has been described as a loose remake of Bresson’s. Both star donkeys, and both employ an episodic structure to explore a variety of social strata. But Balthazar is a film about what humans do. In the very first scene, the donkey Balthazar is taken from his mother by a pair of French schoolchildren, tourists visiting their country estate who baptize the foal and forget him as soon as they are headed back to the city, leaving Balthazar with their tenants. This inaugurates a pattern. For his entire life, Balthazar is mutely led from one master to another, every moment of care followed by an eternity of abuse. He is beaten by an itinerant drunk, driven endlessly on a spendthrift’s mill wheel, abandoned in the cold by a tomcatting young criminal. His is the tragedy of the domesticated animal, reduced to an object, a tool, a function. He dies on a mountaintop, weighed down with contraband, unnoticed amid a flock of passing sheep.

As creatures, donkeys have little majesty. Stubborn and steady, they are known to withstand pain and unpleasantness. Their great liquid eyes look out from their downturned muzzles, as if afraid to confront the world directly. Even their voices have become shorthand for idiocy. Bresson’s austere approach transforms this perceived dullness into dignity: Balthazar’s entire life is one long gauntlet of mistreatment, one he cannot help but endure. His persistence is innate, involuntary. It’s the core of his being.

This contrasts with the many petty humans who lay their hands upon Balthazar, most notably the family of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), a sickly girl who grows into an image of virginal purity violated. Marie finds herself drawn, perhaps involuntarily, to a village boy who deflowers then despises her, a cycle mirroring her donkey’s journey across the countryside. Bresson’s people act out of their greed, their pride, their drive towards self-destruction; tossed about by the currents of chance, they still believe themselves masters of their fate. What a contrast with Balthazar, passing submissively through his lifetime of irrational pain. Near the end, Marie’s mother christens the donkey a saint.

Yet I can’t help feeling that the film fails its star. The characters take pleasure in Balthazar’s maltreatment, whipping him, driving him, tying lit newspapers to his tail, a gauntlet of punishment that the film itself enacts upon the very real donkey at the center of the frame. Balthazar is only ever considered as the sum total of everything impressed upon him, defined by his ability to withstand, to submit to the characters—and to the filmmaker. But what is he, beyond what has been done to him? There is something religious in the idea that truth might be attained through suffering, that to be meek is to be close to God, and certainly Bresson’s Catholicism inflects his entire body of work. Yet where does that leave the humble donkey? Where does his suffering lead? Christ’s crucifixion is the price paid for resurrection; Balthazar’s lonely death redeems no one. As to how he might actually experience such things—what it might mean for Balthazar to be Balthazar—this is beyond Bresson’s ambit.

Skolimowski and his co-writer (and wife) Ewa Piaskowska paint on a larger canvas. Like Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, their story takes long detours, pausing for local color as the narrative travels from Wroclaw to the Polish wilderness, then on across the alps to Sicily. A large cast of unnamed supporting characters drift through the film, drawing our eye to the workings of a horse farm, the drama of local soccer clubs, the labor of a truck driver, and the melodramatic love affair between Isabelle Huppert (in a disorienting cameo as “The Countess”) and her stepson, who brings Eo home. Characters do not cross over from one episode to the next. Only Eo connects them.

Because, for all its human marginalia, EO is really a film about what it might be like to be Eo. Where Bresson is pared-back, Skolimowski is exuberant, experimenting with color filters, drone shots, handheld cameras, intimate sound design, and a kind of digital step-printing effect to evoke an entire sensory world, from the shrill terror of a horse’s whinny to the rough tenderness of Kassandra’s fingers as they run through Eo’s fur. He frequently frames Eo’s face in shallow-focus shots that compel the viewer to take in the donkey’s body language, the way his nostrils flare, ears swivel, and cheeks shiver in response to the events around him. Bresson is compelled by the donkey’s steadfastness; Skolimowski conveys his sentience.

It’s a profound choice. Where films have tended to define animals from without, Skolimowski illustrates the world as Eo might actually perceive it. The film allows the donkey his own memories and experiences, which is to say his own life. In one of my favorite sequences, Eo is brought to a donkey sanctuary that is visited by a group of children with Down’s Syndrome. In art, as in life, the disabled are often viewed as something between animal and human—responding irrationally to uncontrollable stimuli, lacking in any kind of reflective interior life. But in this segment, Skolimowski uses his shallow lensing and low-angle camera to evoke the tenderness and the curiosity with which two creatures might encounter one another when assumptions of superiority are stripped away.

In Skolimowski’s Europe, a creature like Eo has been reduced to little more than energy to be expended, raw material to be processed.

You might even say he liberates them, at least from our society’s hierarchical grammar. It’s a bold act to portray a donkey’s inner life—to assert, in fact, that a donkey’s life might be worth portraying at all. Certainly the world around him does not agree. For having freed Eo, Skolimowski crushes him in the machinery of human indifference. EO portrays a world of whips, cages, and chains, in which animal life is forever being bound, enclosed, and ground up, when it has not, to return to Berger, been registered absolutely marginal. Love is offered to Eo and then withdrawn. He is adopted by a football club and beaten nearly to death by their opponents. He briefly pulls the cart at a fur farm in a genuine vision of hell. The film ends with him mixed up in a herd of cattle, being driven, tail tucked and terrified, into a slaughterhouse. The screen goes dark, and a bolt snaps.

It’s enough to break your heart. But unlike Balthazar, Eo is not simply a victim of fate. Unlike the cruelly vacuous humans he encounters, he is always pushing forward, journeying on. People reflect on him, not vice versa. For Bresson, everything is a symbol. Balthazar endures alongside Marie; in a fundamental sense, his suffering might as well be hers. Skolimowski is more concerned with evocation. Again and again, he cuts from his humans and returns to the donkey, commanding that we see how all of this is happening to someone. Balthazar is subsumed within the human story, but Eo’s lovesickness renders the human dramatics around him pitiful, paltry. He really, truly feels, with a passionate force that compels him, restlessly, across the world. He is more than what is done to him; he is not a metaphor; his suffering is his own.

Balthazar captures the tail end of that French peasant society which Berger extolled throughout his writings. Motors and electronics are at best marginal presences in the film, gesturing toward a malign modernity creeping in from without. However cruel Bresson’s characters may be, they still recognize Balthazar as an individual. They may not respect the creature, but they rely upon him. For most of EO, by contrast, no one even knows the donkey’s name. In Skolimowski’s Europe, a creature like Eo has been reduced to little more than energy to be expended, raw material to be processed. He is nothing to the world beyond his basic utility. In one experimental interlude, the film even replaces him with a robot. Yet the living animal is not so easily anonymized. We see Eo, the director’s exuberant camera moves punching through our routine alienation to insist that we look, and look again.

This is a radical command. For hopefully we will recognize that we are not just looking at a demure being made to pull carts or get ground up into salami, but at a donkey, at a being who signifies something more than the human: himself.