Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO (2022) both tell emotionally compelling, immersive stories that prominently feature donkeys. Bresson’s film follows the titular Balthazar as he passes through the ownership of various humans who mistreat and abuse him. The titular donkey in Skolimowski’s film follows a similar narrative pattern though enjoys a broader range of experiences in relation to people. Moreover, both films resist what often counts for the conventional cinematic treatment of animals in fictional works. Neither anthropomorphises the donkeys by designating them human-like characteristics, nor do they place them in a kind of offsider or sidekick role. I suggest that Balthazar and EO possess the formal operations of what Paul Schrader has described as transcendental style, which is imperative to understanding the ways in which each film positions the spectator relative to each donkey and artistically relays to us through form and style the reasons for which they are to be valued.

Schrader’s original formulation of transcendental style is restricted to human “acts or artifacts which express something of the Transcendent,” whereby he understands the Transcendent as “the Holy or Ideal itself”.1 This article extends Schrader’s understanding of transcendence relative to transcendental style in various ways. First, I consider – in the context of a long art historical tradition – the ways in which transcendence can be used to artistically assign value or discover the value within non-humans, in particular donkeys. Second, my use of transcendence throughout this article is meant to move beyond mere references to holiness or the divine. While Schrader’s sense of transcendence is central to Balthazar, EO instead uses transcendental style and a sense of the transcendent that is somewhat different. In the former film, I examine how transcendental style is used in Balthazar to connect the titular donkey to the Holy. While transcendental style does not have a necessary or restrictive connection to Christian notions of holiness or the divine or God, the film uses markers of Christianity to help establish the donkey’s association with transcendence in tandem with its adoption of transcendental style.

EO, on the other hand, deploys transcendental style in quite different ways. EO’s style is markedly different both from Balthazar and the films of Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer that Schrader focuses on. Moreover, EO does not position the donkey’s transcendence in association with a sense of “the Holy.” Rather, I suggest that EO adopts a version of the Transcendent in which the donkey’s value is formally represented so as to transcend the world of the film and inhabit the ordinary world of experience we inhabit. This is constructed through the value that the filmmakers (inclusive of the director and those responsible for the creation of the film) explicitly ascribe to the central figure of the donkey. Both films, through the expressive use of formal and stylistic devices, articulate in the donkeys something which is “beyond normal sense experience.”2 The use of form and style has Balthazar’s value attached to the markers of the Transcendent in the sense of the Holy, whereas EO’s value is designated through form and style to depict its value as transcending the artistic world of the film itself, via the treatment of that donkey by the filmmakers (formally and stylistically). The formal representation of the donkeys’ creaturely experience in each film positions the camera as a tool both of witnessing the treatment of each donkey by humans as well as the artistic means by which they are designated their respective expressions of the Transcendent.

Both analyses operate out of the context of what Danielle Sands describes as the relational nature of animal studies, arguing that we “begin not from the individual, but from entanglement.”3 In writing on animal-centred graphic novels, David Herman argues that:

Thus, rather than transgressing the rules of orderly narrative, animal comics can be described as texts that use the narrative system, implemented on a multimodal platform of words and images, to explore understandings of where and how animals should be placed in cultural as well as physical territories, and to model what it may be like for nonhuman others to negotiate those territories— in ways that have the potential to reshape concepts of the human, and human places, in turn.4

Central preoccupations in animal studies, then, seem to rely on some general or inclusive sense of transcendence, especially as it relates to art. Sands’ comments indicate that animal studies as a discipline is preoccupied not with a kind of isolationist approach to understanding and designating value to animals, but rather we understand their value through various kinds of entanglement – with humans, with society and culture, and with art, for example. And so the ways in which we understand animals transcend or go beyond the animals themselves. This approach informs Herman’s observations, which seek to emphasise the ways in which the entanglement of animals in art can help to reveal their value precisely because of the way in which they have been artistically represented. While Herman in the above quote focuses on graphic novels, this same understanding informs the trajectory of my work here. It also seems to imply that art then can contribute to our understanding of the non-human and open up new avenues for valuing animals through their entanglement with and representation in art. As such, it is important to understand the formal and stylistic ways in which animals are being represented at all as a key to understanding how various artworks are aesthetically presenting their value.

Transcendental Style and Donkeys in Visual and Cinematic Art

Schrader anchors his critical theory of transcendental style in observations drawn from the history of Western art, and so I parallel that approach here to outline some of the formal strategies that have been used to connect donkeys to the Transcendent. Perhaps the most iconographic donkey in the Western world is the one on which Jesus Christ rode on Palm Sunday. It is a triumphant event in the Christian tradition, inaugurating as it does Holy Week, which culminates in the celebration of the Paschal Triduum: Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper and the commencement of Christ’s Passion, which leads to His crucifixion on Good Friday, before His glorious, victorious, and even transcendent resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. On Palm Sunday, Christian believers’ devotional attention is oriented to what is to come, juxtaposing the brutality of Christ’s forthcoming passion and crucifixion with the adulation that greets his entrance to Jerusalem. As He sits atop the humble donkey upon entering the city, the people of Jerusalem, we read, throw their cloaks and palms on the ground in deference to the Son of God.

The donkey on which Christ sits first had to be located, and so Christ had sent some apostles to find the colt before His entry as the Prince of Peace into the holy city (Mk 11:1-10).

The donkey, in all of its intrinsic humility, is chosen by Jesus and identified by His apostles to be responsible for this most austere task: to reliably and humbly bring Him to His people, to His city, amongst the throes of cheers and celebrations. The donkey has a purpose that is designated by none other than the Son of God. It has been created for this purpose (unridden and “unused”) and is found at the instruction of Christ. As such, the donkey is inextricably connected to a holy or divine purpose. For all the characteristics we may conventionally associate with donkeys – as a beast of burden, for example – this donkey has been bestowed with an elevated telos; its duty is not burdensome at all. 20th century man of letters G.K. Chesterton likewise captures, especially in stanzas 2-4 of his poem “The Donkey,” the way that the triumph surrounding the donkey is inherited by the animal through his association with the divine presence of Christ.5 There is something of the immanent, earthy, ordinary realities of the world that clings to the image of the donkey, and which are upturned in a variety of depictions across literary and visual art. While the animal is perhaps conventionally a target of belittlement and derision – and this is central, as will be discussed, in Balthazar and EO – when put in contact with the transcendent or divine is instead exalted. The donkey’s qualities are inverted into something greater, something beyond which ordinarily appears or with which it is usually associated. As noted by Jill Bough:

For Christians, the death of Jesus was not the end but represented a new beginning. This is essential in appreciating the significance of the donkey to suffering, death, hope and redemption. The ties with Christianity are so strong that legend has it that the cross on the donkey’s back came from the shadow of the Crucifixion, a living symbol that the donkey has carried through the centuries.6

Given the centrality of Palm Sunday to the Christian tradition, the donkey who carries Christ has featured in Western artistic depictions of that event. These depictions seek to marry the immanence of the donkey – the ways in which it is humbly bound to matters of ordinary reality as well as its unremarkable characteristics: the fact it is not sleek or agile, not abundantly intelligent, or even necessarily obedient (donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness and obstinance). Anthony van Dyck’s painting Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1617), for example, has the donkey spatially central to the titular event, cloaked in Christ’s vibrant robes, and its head shrouded in darkness (fig. 1). He is draped in Jesus’s regal and royal attire – not just carrying Him into Jerusalem but decorated in royally associated garb as Christ the King is. Likewise, for the city’s people to show respect to Jesus – covering the ground in their cloaks or with palms (as van Dyck’s painting depicts), the donkey enjoys such reverential acts, too.

Fig. 1. Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Anthony van Dyck, 1617)

Donkeys feature elsewhere in the story of Christ. Another important event in the Christian tradition (and so depicted in multiple artworks across Western artistic history) is the flight of Mary, Joseph, and an infant Jesus into Egypt. Having been visited by an angel in a dream, Joseph is made aware that King Herod intends to murder the infant Christ. A donkey is once again entrusted – despite their lack of panache, their trustworthiness or reliability is rarely doubted – with the task of helping to carry the Holy Family out of Judaea and, via Maris, into Egypt. In Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Flight Into Egypt (1563), the Mother of God is cloaked in a royal red robe, that, as in the earlier example, drapes over the donkey charged with carrying her to safety. The donkey adheres with obedience to Joseph’s guidance, overwhelmed by the beautiful but rocky landscape, the Mediterranean Sea stretching out into the background (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Landscape with the Flight Into Egypt (Peter Breugel the Elder, 1563)

In Rembrandt’s The Flight into Egypt (1627) the artist’s characteristic chiaroscuro illuminates the Holy Family’s journey (fig. 3). Whereas Bruegel the Elder’s depiction emphasises the landscape, the gentle colours belying the travails of the journey itself, here Rembrandt’s background is a thick and inky darkness that shrouds Joseph, Mary, and Jesus and contrasts with the divine luminosity which guides them through the unknown dangers threatening their journey. Again, the donkey carries Mary and the child Christ and is led by Joseph. Here, as with each of the examples above, the donkey is a necessary and reliable animal, dutifully participating in the divine and holy acts orchestrated by God, in physical proximity and contact with different human forms of holiness. The animal attains a transcendent quality through this association that is then invested in the animal itself. The donkey’s participation in its purpose that has been inaugurated by the Transcendent (God) lends the creature its own transcendence. Formally, this is represented in the donkey’s proximal framing against signifiers, embodiments, and expressions of the divine – moments, events, and individuals that indicate the presence of the Transcendent (Palm Sunday, the flight into Egypt, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph).

Fig. 3. The Flight Into Egypt (Rembrandt, 1627)

One final example should serve to underscore the point that donkeys are often figures which, at least in Christian art, operate to express Transcendence. In one Old Testament story we follow the diviner Balaam who is on a journey to curse Israel at the behest of the then King of Moab. Balaam rides a donkey on this journey, though it is interrupted when an angel appears to the animal. While suffering punishment from Balaam for its apparent disobedience, the donkey is given the power to speak – a miracle – and asks Balaam what she has done to deserve such punishment (Num. 22:22-32). Like Chesterton’s poem, that places language and verbal expression as a capacity of the donkey, this is not so much a matter of anthropomorphizing the animal, but rather of divinizing them. This is reinforced by certain details that are present in Rembrandt’s Balaam and the Ass (1626) (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Balaam and the Ass (Rembrandt, 1626)

Again, as with each of the previous examples, the donkey is put to divine use, and is positioned proximally to other expressions of the Transcendent (in this particular painting in between the angel and Balaam, appropriate given the donkey’s miraculous purpose as a conduit for God’s instruction). Beyond simply mirroring Schrader’s own approach (he draws on religious iconography to bolster his formalist interpretation and definition of transcendental style), this survey of examples serves to underscore two key points that relate to the ways in which animals, can be imbued with the Transcendent. The first is by placing the animal in close proximity to divine figures – angels, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – and “holy” settings and events. The second is that the donkey is not transformed into something other than what it is. Rather, its qualities are relied upon – qualities that are often associated with immanence, that are unremarkable and tied to the ordinary happenings of everyday reality – explicitly for transcendent purposes. In each of the cases briefly sketched, a donkey is chosen because it is a donkey. Moreover, it is chosen by holy figures – be it Jesus, or an angel, or another figure. In the case of Balthazar, the first strategy – proximity to signs of holiness – is used at key points in combination with specific formal strategies to give the donkey a quality of transcendence. In the case of EO, the second strategy – revelling in the donkey for what it is, though without a reliance on Schrader’s original notion of Transcendence – is used.

In the context of cinema, Schrader is most interested, as Troy Bardun notes, in “spiritual expressions in cinematography, dialogue, and editing in relation to one or more past iterations of the Holy from the gamut of artistic representation” (n.p.).7 The examples drawn from art that I have outlined thus far then are not irrelevant details or sidebars, but rather inform the formal treatment of the donkeys that I will address momentarily. In considering the transcendental qualities of Bresson’s output, Schrader notes that the director’s “prison cycle films concern spiritual release”8 and he covers Diary of A Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1959), Pickpocket (1959), and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1961). However, Schrader notes that, alongside Mouchette (1966) and Une Femme Douce (1969), Balthazar does “not as yet seem…to have achieved the resolution of the prison cycle.”9 Here, I would like to suggest otherwise, to extend the limits that Schrader saw in Bresson’s later works in the context of transcendental style.

Schrader springboards off the observations of Susan Sontag, who suggests that “All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty. The imagery of the religious vocation and of crime are used jointly. Both lead to ‘the cell.’ The plots all have to do with incarceration and its sequel.”10 We see something of this dynamic in Balthazar: the donkey attains liberty before being imprisoned, and then attains a promise of liberty before again being imprisoned. The film commences with Balthazar’s adoption by young children (liberty), however after a series of cruel events he is given away to a local farm who overwork the donkey (confinement). After an accident, Balthazar finds his way back to the now teenage girl who was close to Balthazar after his initial adoption (liberty). However, after a series of legal issues the donkey is once more handed over, this time to a local bakery to assist with deliveries (confinement). The film continues in this way until the donkey experiences the only guaranteed scenario in which it is no longer imprisoned by the cruel and harsh confines of existence: it dies. 

 Sontag’s owns analysis of Bresson’s cinema articulates her view that he is “the master of the reflective mode,” defined as art that “is not frigid. It can exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep. But its emotional power is mediated. The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed.”11 The mediation of such emotional involvement is achieved in the way in which the film draws attention to its own form – the spectator is not completely invested or immersed in the emotional world of the film, because the spectator is simultaneously aware of the way in which the film has been formally constructed. With this line of thinking, Sontag suggests that the “form of the work of art is present in an emphatic way. The effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or to retard the emotions. For, to the extent that we are conscious of form in a work of art, we become somewhat detached; our emotions do not respond in the same way as they do in real life. Awareness of form does two things simultaneously: it gives a sensuous pleasure independent of the “content,” and it invites the use of intelligence.”12 

Sontag’s comments broadly hold to Bresson’s characteristic rigidity of form – a directorial hallmark for his works that is most identifiable in films such as A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and even later works like L’Argent (1983). However, perhaps necessitated by the central place of the donkey to the film, Balthazar is formally looser, and so operates in the reflective mode due to the centrality of the donkey rather than the “obtrusiveness” or “self-awareness” of the film’s visual style. In noting the presence of the donkey and its expressive importance to the film, Anat Pick highlights that:

The silence of the animals in the face of all that is said and done to them returns to the idea of martyrdom or rather to the notion of the saint. A saint does not pontificate. He or she remain true to the reality that has been conferred without conforming to the demands of communication and persuasion. A saint reaches others not by canvassing but as embodied revelation. Suffering becomes saintly when its inarticulacy is revealed as a refusal to speak. Thus the powerlessness of those who do or cannot participate in a given discourse paradoxically carries its own inalienable force.13

Arguably the explicit patterning involving liberty and confinement is a formal technique notable enough to mediate spectators’ emotional involvement in the film. Critically, this does not mean that the film is unemotional – it is generally regarded as being remarkably impactful in this way – rather that the emotion generated is not necessarily immersive. Moreover, one could argue that the emphasis on the donkey as much of the film’s emotional centre (admittedly in concert with Marie, the girl to whom Balthazar returns at select points of the film) is another “distancing” technique of the film, provided we take Sontag’s use of distance and disinterestedness to mean a kind of aesthetic or experiential distance/disinterestedness. 

These different characteristics of the film are important ways in which our experience of it can be attuned to the Transcendent with which Balthazar is associated. Arguably, were the film more immersive – emotionally or experientially – that would lead to a preoccupation with the internal logic and world of the film itself. However, by positioning spectators in relation to the film along the lines of the reflective mode Sontag identifies, we are afforded an observational stance that enables reflection on the place of the Transcendent in the film. That is to say, Sontag’s insights draw attention to the way in which the various devices of formal construction in cinema can be used not so much to envelop the spectator in the world of a film but to instead position the spectator outside of the world of the film: to artistically promote a kind of spectatorial transcendence of the film world. For some, the relative looseness of the style in combination with the formal patterning renders the film difficult to follow. As Joseph Cunneen notes, “We are so accustomed to the mechanics of conventional dramatic plotting, to a construction that builds to an inevitable climax, that it is easy to be disconcerted by the organization of a film in fragments.”14 Naturally, spectators never conventionally inhabit a film, but one can have the sense of being “in the film” imaginatively; however, this is not the aim of reflective cinema, nor necessarily of Balthazar. Instead, we act as observers or witnesses to what unfolds, transcending the film world and appreciating and appraising it externally so to speak, and at the same time bearing witness to the ways in which the film contains some sense of the Transcendent within it.

Sontag’s comments to do with reflective art inform the systematic and stylistic details that Schrader identifies as characteristic of transcendental style. He notes that transcendental style “stylizes reality by eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power. Transcendental style, like the mass, transforms experience into a repeatable ritual which can be repeatedly transcended.”15 The narrative patterning mentioned earlier works simultaneously both as a ritual and by stylising the reality depicted. Both qualities are achieved precisely because it is such an explicit narrative pattern. Moreover, Schrader identifies specific areas of style and form that operate in “nonexpressive” ways (“nonexpressive” of culture or personality) and are “reduced to stasis” – plot, acting, characterization, camerawork, music, dialogue, editing.16 The aforementioned formal looseness (relative to what is characteristic of Bresson’s work) means that much of the style is nonexpressive of the director’s “personality.” As such, the director’s penchant for transcendental style must be expressed in other means – both in the patterning mentioned above, and in specific moments where the donkey is brought into contact with signs of the Transcendent.

The most obvious of these occurs early in the film when Jacques – one of the young children who adopts Balthazar – baptises the donkey. Jacques’ sweetheart, Marie, assists (figs. 5 and 6).

Fig. 5. Balthazar is baptised with water in Au Hasard Balthazar

Fig. 6. And receives salt in Au Hasard Balthazar

In the traditional form of the sacrament of baptism, one is baptised with holy water “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (the Trinitarian formula) and receives salt on the tongue (to symbolise the way in which a follower of Christ is to preserve the world from evil). Despite the fact these sacraments are inaccessible to animals, the innocence of the children’s actions positions the donkey in proximity with holy signs – with particular and purposeful expressions of the Transcendent.

There is another allusion to another sacrament – that of first Holy Communion – in a later scene in the film. Soon upon the donkey’s return, Marie fashions a flower crown for the donkey, placing it on his head and kissing him tenderly on the end of his snout (fig. 7). 

Fig. 7. Marie adorns Balthazar with a flower crown in Au Hasard Balthazar

The flower crown traditionally adorned young girls’ heads when they received the sacrament of first Holy Communion, and also has connotations to religious figures – in The Coronation of the Virgin (1635-1636) by Diego Velásquez, Mary is seen being crowned by the three Persons of the Trinity with God the Son and God the Father holding a crown whose form and colour resemble flowers (fig. 8). Naturally, the crown in the tradition of Christianity also calls to mind the crowning of thorns (after all, roses and thorns often come together), and so sanctification and suffering are united.

Fig. 8. The Coronation of the Virgin (Diego Velázquez, 1635-1636)

The sacraments in the Christian tradition operate as signs of the Sacred – they are expressions of holiness that designate to those who avail themselves of that sacrament specific gifts. As holy signs – signs of the Transcendent in the language of this article – the recipient is therefore placed in proximity to the grace of God. Likewise, in Balthazar, the titular donkey is placed near the Transcendent by the way in which he encounters specific sacramental expressions. Since sacraments are ritualised in various ways, the Transcendent is present even when formal sacraments are not. At the film’s conclusion, where Balthazar is mortally wounded and eventually dies, bells are heard over the soundtrack. While there is no indication that there is a stylistic or formal expression of the Last Rites, bells ring over the soundtrack – an audible sign central to the mass (including requiem masses).

In articulating the specific formal properties of transcendental style, Schrader identifies a series of dichotomies, noting how this formal system opts for “irrationalism over rationalism, repetition over variation, sacred over profane, the deific over the humanistic, intellectual realism over optical realism, two-dimensional vision over three-dimensional vision, tradition over experience, anonymity over individualization.”17 These various dichotomies are variably present in works which possess or use transcendental style, a style which itself unfolds through three stages or steps: the everyday (“a meticulous representation of the dull, banal commonplaces of everyday living”),18 disparity (“an actual or potential disunity between man and his environment which culminates in decisive action”)19 and stasis (“a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it”).20

By now it is hopefully clear that Balthazar’s formal patterning establishes repetition over variation, that its inclusion of transcendent, ritualised forms of expressing the Sacred also emphasise the sacred over the profane, and, at least in the large stretches of the film that are preoccupied with the donkey, prioritise the deific over humanism. Moreover, the three phases do not so much conceal but rather reveal what Raymond Durgnat sees in Bresson’s cinema, namely that they “are rarely stories about temptation or struggles with doubt or for ‘reasons to believe’. They’re more about subliminal resistance to, or discovery of, grace.”21 The formal properties of the film set spectators up to discover this grace in select characters’ parallel discovery of grace. Or, in the case of Balthazar, the donkey’s association with grace in the ways outlined thus far. This is crystallised in the way in which the film adopts the three-phase structure of the everyday, disparity, and stasis. The film goes to great lengths – and in many respects maintains throughout the film – a preoccupation with the quotidian operations of its setting and the characters that populate it. Given the focus on Balthazar as one of the central characters (arguably Marie is the other), the film lacks a single, clear decisive action initiated by him – instead he is at the whim of the decisiveness of other characters. As such, there are multiple disparities in the film, and these occur at the narrative and formal “hinge points” when confinement gives way to liberty, and liberty to confinement. Such patterned series of disunities produce the existential dissonance or tension in the donkey, and while the donkey’s death does in a way “resolve” this tension it would fairer to cast the final scenes of the film in Schrader’s language of stasis. It is the “frozen view of life” that is expressed in the donkey’s death – the only moment in which he is not drifting from confinement to liberty, or vice versa, that enables him to finally eschew this condition of his existence. We can see a quality of transcendence in this final moment because it can be read as an ultimate expression of confinement, or an ultimate form of liberty. And it is in this moment of stasis that the film perfects its use of the reflective mode of art that Sontag identifies across Bresson’s work.

Balthazar clearly uses the formal design of transcendental film style, though in transposing these aesthetic qualities to the story of donkey it develops Schrader’s original formulation. In writing about Balthazar, Dennis Rothermel notes how the formal design of the film mimics, or seeks to render, the titular donkey’s geometry of experience:  

Bresson’s medium-distance shots in Au hasard Balthazar situate a normal visual standpoint at donkey height. The realm of action and drama is thus defined as within the donkey’s existential terrain, although the camera never represents the donkey’s POV precisely…. The movement and compositions in the film are horizontal – gentle, slow, cyclical reverberations reflective of the donkey’s inscrutable swaying back and forth.22

What, then, of EO? As mentioned, the narrative patterning formally resembles that which unfolds in Balthazar. We follow the donkey as he is “repossessed” from a circus, taken to a farm, and engages in a range of other confinements before finally meeting the same fate as Balthazar, though in this instance EO is killed on a cattle farm (along with the cattle). Upon the film’s close, a message from the filmmakers appears on screen:

“This film was made out of our love of animals and nature. He animals’ well-being on set was always our first priority, and no animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

Herein lies the key to understanding EO as an extension of transcendental film style, whereby the animal transcends the confines of the film itself and is tethered to the world of ordinary experience. Moreover, EO is celebrated and revelled in for what he is. In her review of the film, Eileen G’Sell highlights how “the film subtly acknowledges the impossibility of perceiving his [EO’s] subjectivity as entirely separate from human existence, even as it cannot be bound or defined by it. His identity as a donkey specifically also matters.”23

Relationality, proximity, transcendence.

The use of close-ups (see figs. 9 and 10), frequently linger on the donkey’s often impassive face as well as other details of his hair, eyes, short mane, and hooves, enabling us to reflect on the very fact of him, the circumstances in which he finds himself, and what we have seen him endure. For Yosr Dridi, “the world from the donkey’s eyes is defamiliarized to the viewers who struggle to come to terms with the arbitrariness of his existence and the irregularity of his perspective. To attenuate this defamiliarization, the donkey is endowed with human emotions which facilitate empathy.”24

The first part is right…

Figs. 9 and 10: EO is adored by the camera in EO

Drawing on Bazin’s comments on Umberto D, Laura McMahon emphasises the importance of time and duration in the construction of animal worlds on film. McMahon suggests that: 

Duration is key here…allowing for a patient tracing of the contingent wanderings of the everyday – a form of uneventfulness that eschews dramatic structure…. Uneventfulness is linked to a ‘fidelity to reality’ and to an equitability of presentation across species divisions, in the absence of the peaks and troughs of dramatic structure.25

The film intelligently reinforces the donkey qua donkey in other ways too. For example, in a scene where EO has found himself at a stable for horses, the film’s use of cross-cutting and close-ups between the donkey and the horses provide a clear sense of the donkey’s relative stature, lack of agility, power, and physical presence. EO is small and relatively quiet, easily spooked and clumsy – in the moment that sees him transferred away from the stables and to the next location, he is frightened by the noise and behaviour of the horses, knocking over several shelves’ worth of trophies. But the film does not make excuses for his behaviour, and it does not make him other than he is. It does not even suggest that he is “better” than the horses because of his temperament or nature. It simply presents him “as-is,” and so invites spectators to reflect on the value and meaning that is intrinsic to him as a particular case of the general category of animals (per the interests of the film revealed upon its conclusion).

Randy Malamud notes how “The phenomenon of looking at animals in visual culture is predicated upon the assumption that the viewer is human and the object is animal.”26 For Malamud, “This kind of objectification is dangerous not only because it is outmoded from a scientific and social perspective, but more fundamentally because it is reductionist. It circumscribes animals’ existence in relation to the human gaze, appraising them only in terms of their usefulness or threat (to us).”27

EO confounds this conventional assumption…

EO is occasionally valued by human characters within the film; he is not always mistreated. His original handler clearly loves the donkey and treats him well. She is distraught when he is taken from the circus and visits him (she is clearly drunk) for his birthday, precipitating the donkey’s escape in an attempt to reunite with her. A much later scene shows the donkey happening upon a local football game where a well-timed “hee-haw” causes one team to lose in dramatic fashion. The winning side honours the donkey, walking him into town in a celebratory parade. He is also not mistreated by the various farms who take him in. He is, though, valued primarily for his utility – to pull wagons, and to help in other ways.

This is strictly speaking a valuing of the donkey and his attributes. However, I suggest that through the film’s secularised transcendental style, it is asking more of us: to value the donkey not because of his utility or the way in which he is endearing, but simply for its own sake. The quality of the Transcendent, then, emerges from the way style and form combine to emphasise the donkey for what he is, not for what he does, nor for any action he participates in. In a somewhat paradoxical manner, his intrinsic value performed through the donkey’s presence and representation in the film transcends the evaluative categories and measures we might apply to him. At the behest of the filmmakers, we are encouraged merely to love, because the donkey merely is.

Schrader’s transcendental film style proves more malleable than perhaps the critic and filmmaker originally thought. In this article, I have attempted to demonstrate that beyond expression in humans, the Transcendent can be expressed through or associated with animals. Through key touchstones across the history of Western art, I have shown that donkeys are effective means by which this is the case, provided they are represented near expressions of the Transcendent and valued for their own sake. The sacred sense of the Transcendent is retained and relied upon in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, while Skolimowski’s EO maintains a secularised sense of the Transcendent that relies on particular uses of form and style. These two films involve beautiful portrayals of the donkey, upturning ordinary assumptions about the animal to represent and celebrate its inherent value.


  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Film Style (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 5.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. Danielle Sands, Animal Writing: Storytelling, Selfhood and the Limits of Empathy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p. 11.
  4. David Herman, Narratology Beyond the Human: Storytelling and Animal Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 121.
  5. G.K. Chesterton. “The Donkey.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 14 January 2024.
  6. Jill Bough, “Reflecting on donkeys: images of death and redemption” in Animal Death, edited by Jay Johnston and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2013), p. 126.
  7. Troy Bardun. “Revisiting Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film,” Offscreen, Volume 23, Issue 23 (August 2019), n.p.
  8. Schrader, p. 60.
  9. Ibid., p. 60.
  10. Susan Sontag, “Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson” in Against Interpretation and other essays (New York: Delta Publishing Co., 1966), p. 186.
  11. Ibid., p. 177.
  12. Ibid., p. 179.
  13. Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 189.
  14. Cunneen, Joseph, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 99.
  15. Schrader, p. 11.
  16. Ibid., p. 11.
  17. Ibid., p. 11.
  18. Ibid., 39.
  19. Ibid., 42.
  20. Ibid., 49.
  21. Durgnat, Raymond, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” In Robert Bresson, edited by James Quandt (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group), p. 417.
  22. Dennis Rothermel, “Becoming-Animal Cinema Narrative” in Deleuze and the Animal, edited by Colin Gardner and Patricia MacCormack (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), p. 267.
  23. Eileen G’Sell. “Anti-Speciesist Interiority? Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO and the Limits of Human Imagination,” The Hopkins Review Volume 16, Issue 2 (2023), p. 157.
  24. Yosr Dridi. “Humanizing the Non-Human: A Review of Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO.” The Quint: An Interdisciplinary Journal from the North Volume 15, Issue 2 (2023), p. 253.
  25. Laura McMahon, Animal Worlds: Film, Philosophy and Time (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p. 51.
  26. Randy Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 74.
  27. Ibid., 75.

About The Author

Dr Matthew Cipa is an academic in the School of Communication at the Queensland University of Technology and affiliate academic in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Queensland. He is the author of Is Harpo Free? And Other Questions of the Metaphysical Screen (SUNY Press, 2024).

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