Jerzy Skolimowski’s brash epic about a wandering donkey: NPR

The eyes of the donkey seem to take the measure of modern life in Jerzy Skolimowski’s film, HEY.

Cannes film festival

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Cannes film festival

Jerzy Skolimowski's brash epic about a wandering donkey: NPR

The eyes of the donkey seem to take the measure of modern life in Jerzy Skolimowski’s film, HEY.

Cannes film festival

We all have things we don’t like about movies. For some it is horror, for others bloodshed, for still others nudity and sex. For my part, I have always found it atrocious to see a film in which we show mistreated animals.

I was filled with dread to see the new movie HEYwhich is a riff on Robert Bresson Random balthazar, a painful masterpiece in which a donkey is reduced to dust by the inhumanity of the world. But I knew that I had to see it because it was directed by one of my cinematic heroes, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, who, at 84, is enjoying an astonishing late-career resurgence. So I dragged myself to a screening. And I’m glad I did. Far from being a cavalcade of misery, HEY is a thrilling and imaginative cinematic achievement: a weird and haunting epic about a donkey who couldn’t feel more of our moment.

The donkey’s name is EO, and as the action begins, EO is part of a little circus act with a loving young trainer. But when the circus goes bankrupt, the OE is sold to farmers. They don’t treat the EO badly, but the donkey remembers a happier past life and quickly escapes, beginning a journey through modern Europe that carries the EO from forests and cities, to villas. and heaps of scrap metal the size of small Alps.

Now, normally a movie like this would focus on the nasty people surrounding EO’s wanderings. But the people here aren’t all bad. Along the way, EO encounters all kinds of human beings, from kind to heartless brutal. Yet in a bold move, Skolimowski doesn’t prioritize the human side of things. It remains centered around its donkey hero, giving EO’s existence an independence and value equal to that of any humans we meet. We get to know the world from EO’s point of view – the alien beauty of the film suggests the perceptions of an animal – and we share the emotions of the donkey.

Skolimowski constantly shows us EO’s dark eyes, which seem to take in the measure of modern life. What they see and judge is our world with its rampant despoliation of nature, and in particular, its treatment of animals – from impending wind turbines slaughtering birds in flight, to hunters with laser-guided rifles shooting down wolves, to the industrial food system that endlessly drives animals into the meat-packing plant. We spend the film fearing what may happen to EO.

Now, the sense that the cosmos is out to get you has been present in Skolimowski’s work from the start. This is perhaps unsurprising, as his father was executed by the Nazis and he himself grew up in repressed communist Poland. A man of many talents – he was also a boxer, poet, painter and actor, even in Marvel Movies! – Skolimowski had a tremendous run from the 1960s to the 1980s, making great films like Fence, Limit and Illegal work. Then, in his mid-40s, he seemed to be on a cinematic fallow. What no one could have guessed was that, in his eighth decade, he would ignite again, making movies like essential murder and 11minutes that crackle with audacity Young Punk.

This plume appears all over HEY, with its fast camera, color filters, aggressive music and absolute confidence to immerse viewers in the world of donkeys where there is more poetry than intrigue and no one explains what is going on. The film is so brash, free and inventive that, if I hadn’t known Skolimowski made it, I would have assumed it was the work of a brilliant 25-year-old discovering what they – and the movies – can do.

Part of what makes HEY feel so alive is that it speaks to today’s huge ongoing shift in consciousness about animals and our growing realization that we treat them horribly. It is a film filled with compassion for the exploited and abused creatures of this world and electric with anger against those who, out of malice or recklessness, perpetuate cruelty towards the powerless.

Jean-Luc Godard said Bresson’s Donkey Film gave you “the world in an hour and a half”. You can say the same about Skolimowski’s revamped version, which may be another way of telling you that this is a movie that can leave you in tears.


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