“EO” takes its title from the sound its main character makes. It may also be his name as well, though we only hear it uttered by his soon-to-be former companion, Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). She works with him in her Polish circus act, a performance cinematographer Michał Dymek shoots as a series of close-up images bathed in blazing red. We cannot initially tell if what we are seeing is sacred or profane; the uncertainty sets the tone for the movie.
EO is a donkey. The film is mostly seen through his eyes. But Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Ewa Piaskowska) doesn’t follow the same path Robert Bresson took for his classic 1966 donkey film “Au hasard Balthazar.” While “EO” does court comparison, Bresson depicted, with spiritual overtones, how the animal’s life mirrors our own.
Skolimowski lets EO simply be what he is, with no apparent symbolism: Sometimes an ass is just an ass. The majesty of this film comes from how the director and his team use an often surreal mix of music, editing, sound, and image to allow the viewer to experience the world as we assume EO does.
“EO,” which opens Dec. 23 at the Coolidge, unspools as a series of vignettes rather than a straightforward narrative. After he’s separated from Kasandra (due to intervening animal-rights activists), the film becomes a road trip movie of sorts, moving EO from one European backdrop to another.
We as humans tend to ascribe the traits of our species to animals. Maybe it’s from being bombarded by cartoons as kids. Maybe it’s our basic need to make a connection, to reach a mutual understanding. Your cat looks at you a certain way, and you think it’s cute. But you don’t really know what that kitty’s thinking — or plotting.
We can barely process how our own instincts work. But “EO” never loses sight of how important instinct is to its lead character. There are scenes where his actions make perfect sense, such as a typical flight response when startled. In other moments, we don’t get why he does what he does.
The hypnotic score by Pawel Mykietyn and the seamless editing by Agnieszka Glinska, who had to work with six different donkeys, add to the intimacy of this portrait, as does the cinematography. EO is a sum of his parts, and the film shows them to us in close-ups: a mane, an ear, an eye. Eyes are the windows to the soul, right? But does EO have a soul?
Skolimowski keeps jarring us from such thoughts, yanking us out of them by cutting to wide shots where we see EO in his entirety. It’s a casual reminder that says, “it’s a donkey, people!” EO’s braying on the soundtrack is annoying on purpose, animalistic and strange only to those creatures who can’t translate it.
And yet, we can’t help but impress upon EO our own reactions to the situations he encounters, good and bad. Much of the movie focuses on the environment around him — the stars, other animals, something as benign and delicious as a ring of carrots placed around his neck. But when EO comes in contact with our species, our hackles rise.
“Run, EO, run!” I heard myself saying in my head when he’s assaulted by a bunch of soccer hooligans. The brutality is seen from EO’s point of view, as if it’s happening to us. Later, when a lonely, creepy truck driver who’s been transporting EO meets a grisly end, the donkey is nowhere to be seen. The scene belongs to the human world, not his.
Many people talk to EO. It’s intriguing to note the only time he reacts with a semblance of understanding is when Kasandra speaks to him. She’s a stand-in for a happier time. Does he remember her?
EO’s journey takes him from a circus in Poland to a mansion in Italy that’s inhabited, in a surprise cameo, by the always welcome Isabelle Huppert. (“Run, EO, run!” I thought when the star of “Elle” and “The Piano Teacher” showed up.) I won’t say who or what she plays here, but for her fans, please note it’s one of the Huppertiest roles ever.
EO is just a donkey. “EO” makes us care about him by playing to our better nature, the one that makes us respond emotionally to animals. By constantly reminding us that EO is a beast of burden, Skolimowski essentially is saying, “If you can feel such empathy for a big, dumb animal, why is it so hard to feel it for your fellow man?”
We’re often big, dumb animals, too. Try to love us.
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Written by Skolimowski and Ewa Piaskowska. Starring six donkeys — Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela — and humans Isabelle Huppert and Sandra Drzymalska. 86 minutes. At Coolidge Corner. Unrated (violence, profanity, animal death)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.