EO and The Golden Ass

I initially thought Jerzy Skolimovski’s 2022 feature EO, which IU’s Slavic department and REEI sponsored for a Ryder screening as part of its spring semester film series last Sunday, was very complex in terms of its composition. Probably this is because it uses some rather aggressive editing at the start, especially with the pulsing red filter that intermittently illuminates a panting girl who appears to be atop a donkey sprawled out on the ground, stroking him and whispering his name. The filter comes back periodically through the film though never quite so insistently as in the opening scene. There could be a pattern to it, but I wasn’t able to figure it out after two viewings.

The opening is unsettling and can’t help but set one’s mind wondering what the supposed circus trick could be that gets the sparse audience to its feet when the lights come up and the donkey (EO) and the girl (Cassandra the Magnificent) get to their feet. Cassandra (later referred to by her boyfriend as Magda) loves her donkey and is distraught when he and the other animals get taken away, “liberated” by activists from their supposed mistreatment as circus performers. It is one of the ironies of the film that EO’s treatment as a circus performer is better than his treatment anywhere else. He has more to fear from soccer fans.

This liberation sets EO out on a journey that holds the film together as a series of linked episodes, a structure and a perspective that harkens back to Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, where the inner life of the donkey, who is actually metamorphosed from a man named Lucius when magic goes awry, allows a more direct commentary on sex and bestiality.

In Chapter Ten, which my edition (a 2007 Hackett book, translated and with an introduction by Joel C. Relihan) calls “Wicked, Wicked Women,” one of the inset pieces tells the story of a “young son, educated right and proper and for that very reason a marvel of modesty and filial devotion,” whose father re-marries after the death of his wife. “But the stepmother held sway in her husband’s house more by her beauty than by her morality and, possibly because she was shameless by nature, or possibly because she was propelled by Fate to this ne plus ultra of outrage, she turned her lustful eyes upon her stepson…” (207-208). This will make new sense if you’ve seen the movie.

In another of the closing scenes, Lucius, still in the form of the donkey, is set to have sex with a woman in an arena. “Then she stripped away every last overlayer, even the band that held bound her beautiful breasts. She stands next to the lamp, and from a jar made of an alloy of silver and lead she anoints herself bountifully with oil of balsam. Then she rubs me with it as well most generously, but with much more lavish care and attention she pours it over my nostrils in particular. Then she presses her insistent kisses upon me [….] She takes me by my halter and makes me lie down in the way that I’d learned — no problem, as it seemed that I was going to pursue nothing new, nothing difficult to do, especially as I was, after all this time, about to have an erotic rendezvous with so beautiful and so eager a woman” (p. 221). And that’s enough of that. These and the many other inset tales of The Golden Ass — about murder, unfaithful partners (mostly women), the labor of beasts of burden, liberty, magic, meat, and more — all provide fairly strong indicators that EO is something of an adaptation.

A couple of classical references — to the magnificent Cassandra (Magda) at the circus, to a story of the Aegean, a blind old man, and a harp, told to the special needs children at the donkey farm that is EO’s second home — help to fill out the contours of the adaptation scenario I’ve suggested. I hope someone will take up the idea for closer analysis.

But the story of the film is not primarily about people, as I originally assumed, and the human perspective that is Lucius’s sets one on a side path, it seems to me. At another point, I thought the film’s focus was on a sort of fluidity between beasts and people, especially in how people treat beasts as people sometimes, just as they treat each other as beasts sometimes. But that too is not saying enough.

EO’s first destination is a stud farm that has had “some problems” in the past, according to the officials at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility that appears to be part of reassuring its investors. He watches, and seems to commiserate with, a spirited white mare being prepared to mate with one of the prize stallions. She is exercised, groomed, fed, and washed. The film handles the anticipation and tension quite well. Then, when the horses are brought together and the violence of their expected encounter (this, by the way, is when such a facility might have “some problems” as horses can be severely injured in the process), EO is spooked, rushes off with the wagon he’s strapped to, colliding with the many trophies along the wall and sending them all crashing to the ground.

When EO flees the donkey farm, where he’s been transferred after making such a mess at the stud farm, he wanders into a forest, through an abandoned Jewish cemetery, hears the wolves howling, witnesses the senseless killing of one, which lies suffering on the ground in front of him in its dying moments, and then makes his way through a long, dark tunnel back to people. The scenes piling up begin to have their effect: EO is not a wild animal — even they look at him funny — nor is he a horse, and among the donkeys he stood alone and refused to eat. In each of his encounters, his contours as a singularity become apparent. EO is one living being.

Skolimovski is careful never to make explicit what his main character understands, however. Close ups of EO’s face and eyes, or, more frequently, just one eye, help to suggest an inner life, which could include fear in the forest when wolf-hunters spot him with their laser sights, or sadness in one of the trailers when he’s being moved yet again. His forlorn braying could suggest loneliness when he’s abandoned in front of the Italian mansion, or the injustice and perversity of captivity when he’s peering through a window at fish in an aquarium.

He is clearly made nervous by the electric shock he hears being deployed behind him in the pelt farm, so when the cart driver leans down directly behind his rear hooves, while we might like to imagine he is meting out justice on his own accord, perhaps we’re just seeing an instinct. We imagine an inner life, though sometimes with just a bit of prodding, as when Magda’s whispered calls seem to come back to him, once when he’s badly hurt, another time when he sets off (in search of her?) towards the end of the film.

What comes across is a kaleidoscope of the uses of animals by humans — in a circus, an aquarium, for carrying things on their backs or hauling them in wagons, for comfort and therapy, for sport, for breeding, for racing, as mascots, for their pelts, for their meat. EO witnesses and sometimes takes part in these various uses. He is generally on the outskirts, often an oddity, a domestic animal in a forest, a donkey among horses, a donkey among cows, and so on.

This treatment by differentiation, and the frequent lone depictions of him making his way across a landscape without any other animals in it, isolates and individuates him, gives him a life experience that we are encouraged to imagine as unique. He becomes a being unto himself, unlike any other, in our minds.

And that is what magic is all about.

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