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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne
DIRECTED BY: Jacques Demy
FEATURING: , , , Jacques Perrin
PLOT: The Blue King lives happily in a fairy tale castle with his beautiful wife, his beautiful daughter, and his magic donkey who shits treasure. When the Queen dies, she makes the King swear that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she is; unfortunately, the only woman meeting that description is his daughter. Seeking to escape a coerced marriage to her father, the Princess consults her fairy godmother, who advises her to put on the donkey’s skin and flee the kingdom to live as a scullery maid.
- The story is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who collected and transcribed European folk tales a century before the Grimm Brothers embarked on their similar project. (An English translation of the original “Donkey Skin” can be found here.)
- Previous French stage adaptations (and a silent film version) of the fairy tale rewrote the story to omit the incest theme entirely.
- Jacques Demy had wanted to adapt the fairy tale as early as 1962, hoping to cast Brigitte Bardot and , but at the time he was not well-known enough to raise the budget he would have required.
- This was the third musical Demy directed featuring Catherine Deneuve, following the massive international hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Although it received the least exposure of the three in the U.S., Peau d’âne was Demy’s biggest financial success in France.
- The skin the Princess wears came from a real donkey, a fact Deneuve was unaware of during filming.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Divine Deneuve in donkey drag.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coughing frogs; fairy godmother in a helicopter
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Picking a fairy tale to adapt into an all-ages musical, Demy goes for the one with the incest-based plot.
Trailer for restoration of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) (in French)
COMMENTS: The musical was not a major force in French cinema before Jacques Demy (setting aside outliers like ‘s French Cancan). But the Gauls have a more distinguished lineage in fairy tale cinema. Georges Méliès made short adaptations of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rip van Winkle” at the dawn of the 20th century, and, of course, the French birthed the one live-action fairy tale that looms above all others: 1946’s La Belle et la Bête. Filming his own fairy tale in the musical idiom, Demy does not shy away from acknowledging la Bête; to the contrary, he casts that film’s star as his leading man, inserts a few stanzas of poetry “from the future” written by none other than , and includes a number of subtle visual tributes to the 1946 classic.
Invoking Cocteau’s Orphic spirit, Demy wisely leans into the surrealism implicit in both fairy tales and musicals, and adds a dollop of Freudian frisson by picking incest as his theme. Donkey Skin did not receive the largest budget, but the elegant locations (it was largely shot in actual castles) and lavish wardrobes give it a regal elegance. The sets and costumes are insane: in the Blue Kingdom, the guards and pages all have blue-painted faces that match their uniforms, and you can probably guess how servants dress in the rival Red Kingdom. The King’s throne is a giant kitty cat, and the Princess’ bed is flanked by two stags. Demy deploys slow motion scenes—when the Lilac Fairy enters the Princess’ chambers through the ceiling, as donkey-clad Deneuve flees to the countryside—to evoke a dreamlike atmosphere. The “Old Woman” (as she insists on being called) who employs Donkey Skin as a scullery maid inexplicably coughs up toads periodically. A talking rose hanging out in the forest seems relatively mundane in this context. Demy sprinkles in just enough hallucinatory fairy dust to make the tale enchanting, but not so much undiluted weirdness as to scare children (or adults) off.
Demy wisely backs off from the wall-to-wall music of his previous Deneuve musicals, where all the dialogue was sung. Such a tactic would not have fit the exposition-heavy fairy tale format, and would have failed to honor the literary source by transforming it too much. Musicals and fairy tales are competing forms of magic, and to mix one into the other without unbalancing either requires a keen sense of alchemy. Fortunately, Disney had already proven that you could insert a modest amount of songs into a fairy tale setting without completely destroying the form. So, we get about half-a-dozen short numbers here, nothing extremely distracting or overly elaborate. (That’s not to say that composer Michel Legrand does not provide plenty of lush incidental music here along with the hummable tunes.) The best-remembered interlude involves Deneuve as Donkey Skin singing together with Deneuve as Princess, as she cheerfully dictates a cake recipe to herself. The most significant number, however, is the duet between the Lilac Fairy Godmother and the Princess: the former explains, in song, why it would be wrong for the latter to marry her father.
That last bit gets to the heart of what’s strangest about Donkey Skin: the centrality of the incest taboo, addressed in a way that’s actually appropriate for children. Psychologists (even amateur psychologists in the court of the Blue King) will tell us that “all little girls, when asked ‘who do you want to marry when you grow up?’ reply without fail ‘I want to marry daddy.'” Adults consider this reaction cute, but too uncomfortable to address seriously. Yet children do, somehow, need to learn that spousal love and familial love are different things, however interchangeable they might seem seem to sexless kids. This is where the fairy tale steps in. The King is seen through a child’s-eye view, so his incestuous desire for his daughter is as innocent as hers; he may be obsessed, but he’s no pedophiliac monster. The fact that this desire is troubling to world-wise adults but seems perfectly natural to guileless children creates a tension in the adult viewer. Children aren’t discomfited by the plot twist, but adults who let their minds run wild are.
Fairy stories are grim at their cores: “Little Red Riding Hood” is a warning against men who prey on little girls; “Hansel and Gretel” the tale of two survivors of childhood abuse, at the hands of both family and strangers who take them in. Perrault’s “Peau d’âne” has all the elements little girls especially love: princesses, fairy godmothers, charming princes, treasure-shitting donkeys… but it is sidelined and omitted from the usual “Mother Goose” compilations. The implied sexual perversion is bad enough, but it is also morally complex in a way that fairy tales usually aren’t. There is no clear line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”; the King, the father figure, is both the villain and the hero. This extra sexual and psychological depth tempts an artist like Demy, and the story’s tensions resolve in the traditionally incoherent happily-ever-after ending. This time, the final deus ex machina arrives via helicopter.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…told with the simplicity and beauty of a child’s fairy tale, but with emotional undertones and a surrealistic style that adults are more likely to appreciate. A child and a parent seeing this movie would experience two different films.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times (2005 restoration)
IMDB LINK: Donkey Skin (1970)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Donkey Skin (1970) | The Criterion Collection – The Criterion Collection page includes stills and links to relevant essays on the movie, Demy’s work in general, and fairy tale cinema
Donkey Skin (1970) – Turner Classic Movies – TCM’s Donkey Skin listing includes an essay of background information by Margarita Landazuri
Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales – Many compilations of Perrault’s fairy tales exist, but they often omit “Donkey Skin” (which the editors here describe as “notorious”)
HOME VIDEO INFO:
Donkey Skin has been released many times, but right now it is part of the Criterion Collection, available only in “The Essential Jacques Demy” box set (buy). The other films included in the set are Demy’s debut Lola (1961), the romance Bay of Angels (1973), companion musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), and the late-era musical Une Chambre de Ville (1982). The films are all restored in 2K and include a bevy of extras, including Demy shorts. The supplements specific to Donkey Skin are a behind-the-scenes look from the French TV program “Pour le cinema,” a ten-minute survey of classic illustrations of Perrault’s “Peau d’âne,” a panel discussion about the psychological undercurrents of the fairy tale and film, and a 40-minute audio recording of a Q&A with film students. The film streams exclusively on the Criterion Channel.
Donkey Skin can be found alone in several non-U.S. or out-of-print releases. If you don’t care about the other Demy movies and only want Donkey Skin (and want to save some money) your best bet may be a to find a used DVD of the 2005 bare-bones Kino Lorber release (buy). Other options are left to the reader to research.