EO review – an innocent donkey leads the way in surreal Bresson-inspired ride

Jerzy Skolimowski is the celebrated veteran director who first came to Cannes in 1972 with King, Queen, Knave starring Gina Lollobrigida and David Niven; now he has returned with a winter’s tale of a film, inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar from 1966. I’m not sure this is my favourite Skolimowski film, but it is engaging in many ways: beautifully photographed, sentimental and surreal in equal measure; and also stubborn – as stubborn as its hero – in its symbolism and stark pessimism.

Like Bresson, Skolimowski makes his lead a donkey, the beast that carried the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem and Jesus into Jerusalem. Skolimowski calls his animal “EO” – after its braying “eee-ohhh” sound. The place is present-day Poland, but the setting could almost be Europe at any time in the last few centuries. EO is being worked in a circus act but has to be let go because of legislation about using animals in this way. He winds up in a donkey sanctuary from which he is freed, then captured in the streets by a council worker for whose football team EO becomes a mascot. But then he is beaten by hooligans supporting the opposing team, captured by a gang trading in illicit horse- and donkey-meat, and finally rescued by a troubled young aristocrat whose haughty and devout mama (a tasty cameo for Isabelle Huppert) disapproves of her son’s louche gambling ways.

And all the time, EO observes and witnesses, his innate humility and dignity rising above crass human vanity and greed. Or, is that what is happening? The film invites us to ask if it is meaningful to attribute these characteristics to EO. He does not participate in any side of our moralising human comedy. The donkey maintains his innocence, but what choice does he have in that matter? How would a donkey without innocence behave? He is, after all, simply a beast of burden. His point of view and his consciousness are mysteries. But perhaps an alien life form, as far above humans as we are above donkeys, would regard us in the same way. And EO’s simple presence on screen is uncanny – this animal is not acting; it is being itself. But, then, perhaps we humans are deluding ourselves when we think that we can transform ourselves by the art of acting, or any other art.

Skolimowski asks us to think about all this: and for all that there is something a little sugary in the movie, it is poignant and distinctive.

• EO screened at the Cannes film festival and is released on 3 February in UK cinemas.