Tag Archives: Fairy Tale

31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Peau d’âne

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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne

Recommended

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.

Still from Donkey Skin (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 Continue reading 31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

CAPSULE: SQUEAL (2021)

AKA Samuel’s Travels

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DIRECTED BY: Aik Karapetian

FEATURING: Kevin Janssens, Laura Silina, Aigars Vilims,
Normunds Griestins

PLOT: While searching for his biological father in Eastern Europe, Kevin inadvertently runs over a pig, and suffers the consequences.

COMMENTS: Barry Lyndon is not what I was expecting to keep coming to mind. Squeal is not British, it’s not produced up the wazoo, and it’s not a film that, decades from now, people will be discussing in lengthy essays about this, that, and the other. Squeal is a modern-day fairy tale set in the vestiges of an older-world Europe; it is a fish-out-of-water comedy with violent overtones; and it’s more an exercise in hit-and-run whimsy than a grand epic. However, Aik Karapetian knows his film history, and how to ape the greats. Calm, counterpoint narration intermittently springs upon us. Refined orchestral tinklings permeate the film score. And in Samuel, we have one of the most inactive, cipherous leads since Ryan O’Neal’s turn as the consummately reactive Barry Lyndon.

Samuel is traveling far from home to the rural outskirts of progress-delayed Eastern Europe in search of his biological father. The motive for this expedition is never clarified, and by the time his snazzy VW sedan smacks into a recently-escaped pig, the filmmaker abandons the whys of Samuel’s plot-triggering pursuit. This pig, who is important enough for the narrator to devote some considerable remarks, is owned by not-yet-middle-aged Kirke, single woman and daughter of a local pig farmer. She had been out looking for her pig, finding it right after Samuel nearly kills it (indeed, he is in the middle of burying the presumably passed porcine when Kirke appears, triggering the animal to rise, Lazarus-like, and attempt to flee once more). This warning is lost on the out-of-towner, and so the three of them drive to Kirke’s pig farm. Samuel ends up spending the night, and then many more nights as he becomes… integrated with life in the sty.

There is a mean streak to Squeal that sidles awkwardly along its pretense of whimsy. Indeed, the other film that came to mind was Eli Roth’s Hostel, as Samuel is forced to endure considerable physical abuse at the hands of Kirke’s father and a would-be suitor—a local runt of a man named Jancuks, who we eventually witness enduring a fate similar to Samuel’s empigment. And this choice of pigs here conjures the Greek legend of Circe. Squeal begins as a tale about a pig attempting escape from the bondage at the farm, preferring the risks of starvation and wolves. This pig develops a mental bond with the imprisoned protagonist, who lacks the bravery of his curly-tailed counterpart: Samuel escapes on occasion, but returns nonetheless.

So what do we have here? A classically informed story, told with ironic playfulness, featuring regular scenes of unpleasant violence. The clashing narrative impulses manage to work together somehow, but tilt more toward dark Wes Anderson than anything from Kubrick. The final scene suggests indecision on the part of Samuel, who ends up on the farm (but out of the sty) contemplating his fate. With all this ambiguousness, I’m not sure that Squeal worked entirely—but I was pleased that it at least went whole hog.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Playing out tropes familiar from ‘torture porn’, while inverting the usual gender dynamics of that subgenre, Samuel’s Travels is an absurdist fable of freedom and slavery, with a BDSM kink in its porcine tail.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FREEWAY (1996)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Wolfgang Bodison, Dan Hedaya, Bokeem Woodbine, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields,

PLOT: Teenager Vanessa flees foster care to go live with her grandmother and is picked up hitchhiking by Bob Wolverton.

Still from Freeway (1996)

COMMENTS: The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is known in the version set down by Charles Perrault, and later as one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but elements of the story date back to ancient Greece. (On the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktales, it’s type 333.) It’s a sturdy trope, revisited many times over the years; we even found one version Canonically Weird. So to come upon Freeway, a modern-day take incarnation of Red and the Wolf’s perennial conflict, is not too surprising. What is different is the gusto with which the film embraces some of the darkest elements of our modern world.

Writer/director Matthew Bright brings two major twists to his take, both revolving around our perception of the heroine. Witherspoon embodies the guileless innocent of the fairy tale as a magnificent piece of white trash. Foul-mouthed and incapable of shame, Vanessa has stepped straight out of “Jerry Springer” and brought a bouillabaisse of lower-class tropes with her: her mother turns tricks, her stepfather is a layabout drug addict and molester, her boyfriend is a drug dealer, her cellmate is an emotionally immature lesbian, she takes down an aggressive Mexican girl to become the alpha of the detention facility, and she’s so illiterate as to barely be able to read the word “cat.” It is to Witherspoon’s credit that she never softens the rough-edges of her antisocial character, yet still earns our support. Vanessa is plucky, resourceful, and hews to a strict code of honesty and personal morality. Even in the face of danger, she refuses to be anything but herself. You don’t always like her, but you have to admire her perseverance.

This ties into the other twist that Freeway brings to the table: our heroine takes her fate into her own hands. No woodsman comes to her rescue; her boyfriend – named “Chopper,” natch – is unable to help her, and the police are unwilling, taking her at face value as a degenerate miscreant. (In fairness, her use of racial epithets doesn’t exactly endear her to the African American detective.) The only person willing to look out for Vanessa is Vanessa, and she doesn’t hesitate to take charge, escaping her social worker, crippling her attacker, and even staging a prison break. (She’s very funny showing up at a diner covered in blood and daintily asking for the washroom.) She is repeatedly punished for her initiative, because given the choice between a young woman who is hardened by her origins and an outwardly clean-cut school counselor who moonlights as a sexual deviant and serial killer, society is obviously going to side with the man. In this version of the fairy tale, the princess is all on her own.

Witherspoon is matched well with Sutherland, who makes a meal of his role by heightening all the different personas of the Wolf: false ally, malformed victim, gleeful sadist. Even though you’re never going to mistake Kiefer for a bleeding heart, he has a lot of fun playing up Bob’s false purity, so that when he does start to reveal his true colors, the over-the-top villainy makes sense as the other side of the coin. By the time he’s been maimed and emasculated by Vanessa, he’s become pure raging id.

As a character study, Freeway is pretty entertaining. As a story, it’s surprisingly conservative, holding tight to the source material. Some of the references feel fun and cheeky, but others are shockingly literal, from the basket that Vanessa totes on her journey to the disguise Bob dons to trick her in the film’s climax. That puts a lot of pressure on style to justify the film’s very existence. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, asserts his law that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Ergo, Freeway is not about a girl who uses her wiles to elude a savvy killer, but rather about our insatiable hunger for lurid stories that confirm our suspicions that the world is a cesspool but there’s nothing wrong with us. For Ebert, that’s why Freeway works. The voice is perfectly attuned to the sensational subject matter.

Ironically, I would argue that all that is a major reason why Freeway is kind of a mess. It’s so focused on the satire, on replicating a child’s fable with a vulgar end-of-the-millennium veneer, that it never actually gets to be its own thing. Witherspoon is a delight to watch, but after a while, she appears to be a list of societal ills, not a character. It’s all about the stunt, and that’s distracting. Freeway’s engagement with the less privileged elements of society seems less about anger with the world’s institutions and more a prurient interest in the crude, the nasty, the tasty, tasty dirt. It’s clever, to be sure, but you end up wishing there was something more to it. All the better to watch, my dear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dark comic excursion into deranged pathology… plays like a cross between the deadpan docudrama of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ and the berserk revenge fantasy of ‘Switchblade Sisters.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “CinemaObscura.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)         

CAPSULE: GUTBOY: A BADTIME STORY (2017)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Nick Grant

FEATURING: David Homyk, MaryBeth Schroeder, voices of Will Cooper, Nick Reed, Misty Foster, Megan Rosen, Anthony Herrera

PLOT: Goot is tricked into selling his skin to Besto, and seeks revenge with the help of a similarly skinless “mermaid.”

Still from Gutboy: a Badtime Story (2017)

COMMENTS: Gutboy is a strange little creature, and the star of a strange little movie that occupies an odd niche on this site’s recommendation spectrum. The movie is slight and casual and doesn’t feel weighty or significant enough to challenge for a spot on our list of the weirdest films ever; and yet, it’s so darn weird that nearly every serious reader of this site will find something to enjoy in it. The “” tag affixed here is, therefore, an attempt to bring attention to this worthy amateur effort, while acknowledging that it doesn’t fit alongside some of the more serious or professional titles honored here.

Not that the movie doesn’t actually earn that “weirdest!” designation. (In fact, some argue that it works too hard for it.) Framed as a story told by an emcee to a sick boy who’s wheeled out before an audience of insects, the plot involves a fisherman tricked into selling his skin, who then immediately hooks a “mermaid” (a similarly skinless woman given to lines like “you learn a lot of things on the ocean floor… like how to please a man”) who tires to seduce him, and also grants him a wish. Gutboy doesn’t think to ask for his skin back, but instead asks to marry the policeman’s daughter. And the story just keeps getting odder when skin-merchant Besto breaks out his giants (portrayed by a well-toned couple of real live humans spray-painted gold) to wrestle for his amusement. Oh yes, and there are also musical numbers, ranging from show tunes to rockabilly and lo-fi punk and pop.

So yeah, it’s pretty strange. The marionettes are appropriately crude and grotesque: Gutboy and his paramour (who, after a brain-swapping mishap, becomes known as “Sophieguts Prettybutts”) look genuinely bloody, and for some reason have exposed brains. The other puppets are all quite ugly, too, bulbous and vaguely resembling antique Eastern European dolls, with sunken wooden eyes covered in black mold. The puppeteering is not particularly accomplished, but it doesn’t matter, given the project’s insouciant attitude. Any movie in which a wooden hooker on strings sings the line “porking me ain’t easy, and diddling me ain’t fun” isn’t aiming for much beyond cheap amusement.

The kitchen sink approach often turns a would-be weird movie into a unwatchable mess, but here it works to Gutboy‘s advantage, with each new quirk catching your attention, but not completely derailing the loose worldbuilding efforts. The movie is also helped immensely by its economical runtime: take out the four-minute introduction and the ten-minute post-credits “Titus Andronicus”-themed bonus short, and it runs just under an hour. Any longer, and it might have started to try your patience.

It might not surprise you to learn that Gutboy was a crowdfunded project. It played well enough in limited screenings that picked it up for distribution. It can now be seen free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a triplike piece of weirdness that defies all sorts of logic – and that’s exactly why it works so well…”–Mike Haberfelner, (re) Search My Trash