Sometimes less is more. Quite frequently, in fact, when it comes to movies. And rarely is that axiom more flagrantly displayed than by a couple of films opening this week. One is more than three hours long, features megastars Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, and springs from the mind of on Oscar-winning wunderkind. The other stars a donkey.
Six donkeys, to be precise, take turns playing the title character in EO, a typically unclassifiable fable from the veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. When we first meet EO, he’s happily employed in a traveling circus. But when regulators shut it down, his human companion releases him. He then wanders the Polish and Italian countryside, encountering the best and worst of humanity along the way.
The obvious inspiration for Skolimowski is Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, which also used a donkey as a lens exposing human, even divine, cruelty. Unlike that film’s unrelenting minimalism, though, EO is a hypnotic, boldly expressionistic piece of filmmaking. There’s very little dialogue, even from the people EO encounters. (One exception is the exuberant Polish soccer team that makes our hero their unexpected mascot.)
A lesser auteur might have made a screed against animal cruelty, or a picaresque, anthropomorphizing romp. Skolimowski is after something more ineffable. He’s trying to capture the essence of his nonhuman protagonist, what you might even call his soul. His camera gets in close, capturing EO’s physicality, sometimes focusing on one of his eyes so that it practically fills the frame and reflects its surroundings in an inky pool.
At other moments the visuals are practically psychedelic, color and sound overwhelming our (and EO’s) senses. Paweł Mykietyn’s score is throbbing and hypnotic. This might sound like a small film perfectly suited to at-home viewing, but it really should be seen in an immersive environment as possible.
Most of all, Skolimowski coaxes an animal performance for the ages from his sextet of stars. It’s not often that Isabelle Huppert is the second-best actor in a film, but when she shows up as a distraught Italian countess, EO blows her off the screen. The film is on the 15-film shortlist for the Best International Film Oscar, and it might have a tough go of it against Bardo, but it would be a great tribute to an idiosyncratic genius if EO’s director takes the prize. Maybe he could even bring his equine cast to the ceremony. (Opens Friday, Dec. 23, at Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, and the Laurelhurst Theater.)
Speaking of the Academy Awards, the last big self-ordained contender for the big prizes to hit the big screen is Babylon, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s sprawling, R-rated expose of Old Hollywood. And, in keeping with our theme, Chazelle crams so many people in so many places doing so many drugs and having the most sex into his movie that by the time the end credits roll you’re likely to feel like one of its characters after a three-day coke-and-booze binge. Well, not really, but you’ll be able to relate.
Margot Robbie puts her manic pixie nightmare girl energy to good use as Nellie LeRoy, a recent transplant from New Jersey to Los Angeles looking to make it big in the pictures. She sneaks her way into a massive, orgiastic party that takes up the first act of Babylon, where she meets the equally star-struck but less frenzied Manny (Diego Calva). He’s only there because he was in charge of bringing the elephant. (Yes, there’s an elephant at the party. Yes, there are elephant poop jokes.)
Manny falls for the movie business almost as hard as he falls for Nellie, while Nellie cozies up to Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an A-list leading man who truly believes in the movies but also fears his luster may be fading.
Through these three, Chazelle tries to show that Hollywood, even back in the 1920s, was a den of iniquity, a font of artistic exuberance and restless experimentation, and a far more diverse community (by almost any measure) than nostalgic memories of Griffith and Chaplin would suggest. The only problem is that anyone who knows anything about early Hollywood already knows this, which makes Chazelle seem like that guy at a party who finally got around to watching The Sopranos and can’t stop telling you how great it is. You wonder if he’s ever heard of Fatty Arbuckle.
It’s a little refreshing to see a big-budget studio film that’s not afraid of a little, or even a lot, of nudity (at least from extras), but it’s only the current era’s puritanism that makes Babylon feel as naughty as it does. And while he clearly meant to make a counterpoint to La La Land, Chazelle remains decidedly ambiguous about whether Tinseltown is a dream factory or a meat grinder. Of course, it’s always been and always will be both. (Opens Friday, Dec. 23, everywhere.)