As much as I hate to let my Americanism show, it crops up the worst when it comes to cinema. I don’t have a natural aversion to foreign cinema, but Britain is usually my go-to foreign country. The few times I do venture outside English it’s generally through the horror genre. Director Jacques Demy has slowly turned me around towards French cinema with his cotton candy confectionery of fantasy/musicals. After trying out Demy’s best-known work, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), I went seeking other gems and discovered his interpretation of Donkey Skin. Jacques Demy directing a fairy tale? Call that kismet because this opulent French fantasy is a beautiful pastry of delights, both musical and romantic that has Catherine Denueve….need I say more?
When the king of a far-off land loses his wife he vows to only marry a woman more beautiful than she was. Unfortunately, the only woman more beautiful than his wife is his daughter (Denueve). The princess, whose fairy godmother tells her not to marry him (for obvious reasons), flees the kingdom wrapped in the skin of a donkey. She makes her way to a new kingdom where she attracts the attention of a handsome prince (Jacques Perrin).
The Donkey Skin fairy tale has circulated in various forms since the 17th-century, originally written by Charles Perrault, author of the more famous fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Perrault and Demy’s script cannibalize from other tales, so you’ll see a magic mirror, an item of clothing used as proof of someone’s identity/worthiness (Cinderella had a shoe, this utilizes a ring), etc.
Where Demy injects his patented brand of fantastical flourishes sung to music is in the set design and story. The breathtaking color palette of Cherbourg is expanded and given justification with Donkey Skin’s Medieval setting and costumes. Opulent gowns with puffy sleeves, otherworldly and ethereal special effects and oddly colored servants create a world idolizing the rich and the mystical; a time both of the past and nonexistent on our plane entirely. Denueve, outside of the dead donkey skin (complete with top teeth), is an angelic princess we can only dream of with a flowing mane of golden hair and a crown practically glued atop her head. Like most fairy tales of the time period there isn’t much depth or characterization for the princess outside of her beauty, obedience, and purity.
In fact, she doesn’t even understand her father’s “affection” towards her are wrong. He buys her nice dresses and indulges her, so why shouldn’t she marry him? Her fairy godmother (played with daffy exuberance by Delphine Seyrig) is the one who explains, in song of course, that there’s a boundary between familial and romantic affection, of which her father is crossing the line. The way this scene plays appears to be Demy’s satirical examination of fairy tales and women’s roles within them. The brothers Grimm massacred characters who dared to misbehave, yet the sheltered princess can’t subscribe to a world where paternal affection and intimacy are blurred. With the rise of the Women’s Liberation movement in America the zany relationship leaves the audience questioning eons of male patriarchy. Our King is played with bravado by Jean Marais, whom you may recall as the star of another French fairy tale, starring as the Beast in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
The princess flees to a new village cloaked in the skin of a donkey that, presumably, camouflages her. Once in the new town the princess learns how the other half lives, turning from prince(ss) to pauper. She endures the cries from men and women about how ugly and smelly she is, which is ludicrous. Not even a dead, smelly animal carcass can make Catherine Deneuve look ugly! The Prince’s arrival, covered from head to toe in a costume I’m assuming came from the Spanish Inquisition line at Macy’s, leads to a rather conventional fairy tale resolution with some humor thrown in. To prove her love to the prince, the princess bakes him a cake with a ring inside. Because placing a foreign object in one’s food is sure to prove your love…if they’re alive afterward!
The fact that the “Happily Ever After” comes complete with the King being cool with everything, marrying the Fairy Godmother to boot, leads me to my biggest criticism with Donkey Skin: the fairy tale seems secondary. The film’s first half introduces conflict – the father wants to marry his daughter and wonders how she’ll escapes. After she flees the film has nowhere to go. The conflict segues into her desire to secure a husband. Demy’s films, at least going off Cherbourg, place questions and conditions on relationships and not everyone gets their happy ending. However, the happy ending is mandatory with fairy tales and thus the film sputters towards its inevitable conclusion. Demy’s love of music gives the film a Disney-esque edge, but none of the songs have any consistency in tone let alone time period; one song is just a recipe for a cake, while the love ballad with our lovers has a line translated as “let’s go to the snack bar.”
Donkey Skin, despite its failings, continues to enhance my fascination with the wondrous world of Jacques Demy. An earlier film he made between Cherbourg and this, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is probably the weakest of the Demy/Deneuve trio. Demy’s fairy tale world is beautiful and outlandish like a good fairy tale should be. Just don’t get bound up in questioning the characters.
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