Cartoon characters aside, there hasn’t been much to fill a category you might call Cinema of the Donkey, the only movie anyone ever cites in that regard being Bresson’s 1966 Au hasard Balthazar. Until now, that is: 2022 has unexpectedly shaped up to be the screen Year of the Ass, in my book at least. There was the very good French comedy My Donkey, My Lover and I (actually a 2000 production belatedly released here this summer), in which the pack animal proves considerably more emotionally grounded than the human figures; and widely acclaimed The Banshees of Inisherin, wherein a winsome wee donkey becomes the most important among several domesticated creatures featured.
Now there’s EO, which just won the NY Film Critics’ Best International Film Award (in addition to a couple prizes at Cannes), and thus is certain to become director Jerzy Skolimowski’s most-seen film in 40 years. Admittedly, he spent some of that period inactive: After 1991’s Ferdyduke, an adaptation of the cult novel that almost no one saw (it’s not great, either), he spent nearly two decades painting, apparently.
But he is a personal favorite whose resurgence has been hugely gratifying: A luminary of the 1960s Polish New Wave, then an uneven but always adventurous expat talent who scored some arthouse hits (Deep End, Moonlighting), and whose comparative misses were sometimes inspired (The Shout, Success Is the Best Revenge), but never less than interesting. In 2008 he unexpectedly returned bearing the Polish Four Nights With Anna, which—like each of the three films since—ranks amongst his best.
EO, which opens at the Roxie this Fri/9, is a Polish-Italian coproduction frankly inspired by the Bresson film, which with disarming simplicity followed the rather downhill life path of a donkey forever at the mercy of often careless or callous two-legged keepers. EO (perhaps named for Eeyore—presumably not for Michael Jackson’s Coppola-directed 1986 extravaganza Captain EO) isn’t much luckier. But Skolimowski is a very different observer—this story (co-written with Ewa Piaskowska) is by turns prankish, melodramatic, ironical, and tinged by the fantastic, even as the tragic pathos Bresson emphasized remains a major element.
Placid and cuddly-looking as a stuffed animal, EO is introduced as part of a small traveling circus, where he performs with a young woman (Sandra Drzymalska) who is his adoring keeper. But when that operation is shut down by bankruptcy, EO is among its confiscated assets. He’s then shunted from one situation to another, including an upscale estate’s stable, a working farm, a forest, and much more. Sometimes he runs away; sometimes he is caught, by people variably kind or gratuitously unkind. His adventures are really a tour of the very weird world of people, whether they be soccer hooligans, Isabelle Huppert (as an aristocrat), or in one odd sequence a robotic “dog.” Through it all, EO remains adorable—and unknowable, a cipher with soulful eyes despite the occasional mean back-kick.
While we often see things from his point of view, this is far from the kind of earnest inquiry into everyday animal life attempted in recent barnyard documentaries Gunda (about a pig) or Cow. Skolimowski is definitely after something bigger, and he throws the full vocabulary of cinema at it. EO is vigorous, stylish, imaginative filmmaking, full of surprising narrative and tonal shifts. It’s beautifully shot (Michal Dymek) and scored (Pawel Mykietyn). The director’s joy in using his medium’s tools to eccentrically individual ends is as palpable now that he’s 84 as it was when he made Barrier in his twenties. This isn’t even my favorite among his later films, and it’s nonetheless more alive with ideas and aesthetics than most films by talents half or a quarter his age. Let’s hope he’s got some years of activity left—he seems to be just hitting his stride.
This being that time of year, there’s a lot of other award-magnetizing stuff in circulation, so we’ll do a fast tour of some such features either already released last week or (like EO) arriving this Fri/9. We’re taking a pass on wading into Noam Baumbach’s effortfully antic take on Don DeLillo’s White Noise, an “unfilmable novel” that turns out probably should have stayed unfilmed. Ditto (sight unseen) Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation, because like many people, I’m not ready yet to swallow 132 minutes of a nobly-suffering Will Smith, even in the service of a fact-based story. White Noise opened in limited Bay Area theaters (including the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center) last Fri/2, then debuts on Netflix Dec. 30; Emancipation begins streaming on AppleTV+ this Fri/9, also opening then in select local theaters (all suburban).
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
In yet another screen translation, the most infamous banned book of the 20th century can now pass as just another genteel English period romance, even if it remains more eros-driven than your average Austen or Forster joint. This Netflix adaptation from French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (of 2019’s The Mustang) has The Crown’s Princess Di, Emma Corrin, as D.H. Lawrence’s heroine. Connie Reid is a Londoner who moves to the inherited vast Midlands estate of her husband Sir Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) when he returns from WWI service. Alas, he’s returned in a wheelchair, with their physical love life now a thing of the past—indeed, confined to their single wedding night. Restless in more ways than one, she increasingly finds herself drawn to the rugged new gameskeeper Mellors (Jack O’Connell).
Once so shocking a portrait of female sexuality that it was put on trial for obscenity three decades after its initial 1928 publication—a case that significantly commence the end of many censorious-content laws—Lady Chatterley’s Lover cannot shock us now. To her credit, Clermont-Tonnerre doesn’t try, despite a fair amount of equal-opportunity nudity and simulated humping. This handsome-looking version’s primary quality is that it is pleasant, with a lightness of spirit reflecting its rather up-to-the-moment depiction of Lady C. as a willful, proto-feminist free spirit. The novel’s content is somewhat simplified, yet not trivialized, and the actors (also including Joely Richardson, who once played the title role for Ken Russell) are sympathetically astute. This may not be the best imaginable Lover—I’m not sure that film has yet been made—but it is more than good enough. It opened in limited theaters last Friday and is also streaming on Netflix.
Empire of Light
Another English damsel’s forbidden desire is the plot spur, more or less, to this latest film directed and (somewhat more unusually) written by Sam Mendes of American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, 1917 and a couple of the Daniel Craig 007’s. The aptly named Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is a middle-aged, mousey worker in a southern seaside town’s movie palace circa 1980, with no apparent “personal life” apart from rather degrading secret sexual liaisons at the beck and call of the officious theater manager (Colin Firth).
Things brighten considerably when there’s a new hire, young Stephen (Micheal Ward). Despite the considerable age difference—and her sometimes irrationally odd displays of temper—they become friends, then something more. But the relationship seems ill-fated, and not just because this job is probably just a way station for Stephen, while it’s likely (for reasons we only belatedly realize) the best Hilary can hope for.
Empire is nearly half through before it becomes clear its real subject is mental illness, which it handles in a non-revelatory but intelligent and sensitive fashion. The film has gotten tepid early reviews, perhaps because the erratic but usually ambitious Mendes is the kind of director expected to make a big, sweeping statement—and this is really just a small character study. It does not develop some subsidiary themes (the magic and power of cinema itself, the racism directed at Stephen by violent skinheads) as powerfully as many other films have. And there’s a surprisingly limp, sentimental score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But with expectations duly lowered, I found it quietly insightful and touching, a solid drama with fine performances. Empire of Light opens in San Francisco theaters Fri/9.
Leonor Will Never Die
In writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s debut feature, Leonor (Sheila Francisco) is an aged, once-famous director who’s fallen into just-scraping-by obscurity. Nostalgic for career-heyday times of yore, her reality is a little slippery even before she’s hit in the head by a flying television set someone tosses out a window in anger. Externally, this lands her in the hospital, in a vegetative state. Internally, it frees her to step in and out of the slum crime drama she’s writing—visualized as an homage to cheesy 1970s/80s Filipino action cinema, with Rocky Salumbides as the virtuously kick-ass, frequently shirtless hero forever stuck combating corrupt authorities and ruthless crime rings.
Sort of Celine and Julie Go Boating meets a Manila Death Wish IV, this is the year’s OTHER space/time continuum-blending phantasmagoria starring an older Asian woman. I confess I liked it better—and certainly found it less exhausting—than the frenetic Everything Everywhere At Once, even if Leonor is by necessity a much more lo-fi endeavor. It is at once a fondly satirical homage to sentimental retro exploitation cinema, and a critique of latterday political currents in the Philippines. It opens Fri/9 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.Attachments area