Donkey Skin (1970): Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

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To view Donkey Skin click here.

I always love seeing what happens when international directors make it big on the foreign-language film circuit and start getting pressured to shoot films in English. The results tend to fall into certain categories: divisive but with fan followings, as in the case of François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) or Fellini’s Casanova (1976); interesting but almost immediately forgotten, as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch (1971) or Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007); or, on rare occasions, a language-transcending masterpiece like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), something he didn’t quite manage to replicate again with commercial audiences. (Exactly where John Woo falls on that spectrum is still being sorted out.)

Then we have the odd case of Jacques Demy, one of my favorite directors but someone who can take some effort to sort out. All his films in one way or another reflect on love and the price we pay for it, something laid out in his accomplished debut feature, Lola (1961), and given its most spectacular treatment in his wildly popular The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). That latter film’s success was enough for producers to insist that Demy start making his films in English, so its follow-up film, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), was shot in both French and English versions, the latter now buried apart from the release of several music tracks. Demy decided to close out the 1960s by going to California with wife Agnès Varda, where she wound up establishing a permanent home and turning out some fascinatingly weird documentaries. Demy only made one film there, the Columbia Pictures non-musical Model Shop (1969), which serves as one of two direct sequels to Lola (along with Cherbourg). Though it has since been reappraised and has much to offer, the film tanked hard and sent Demy back to France to collect himself.

What we got after that is a reinvention of sorts, as he returned to shooting a film in French – and not only that, it’s his most lavish production as well as one of his most enduringly popular titles in his native country even today: Donkey Skin (1970), or Peau d’âne. A colorful adaptation of a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the legendary author of the most popular fairy tale versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and Sleeping Beauty, it’s surprisingly perverse by today’s child-friendly standards in keeping with its literary fairy tale origins. The film pulls no punches with the flat-out weird source material involving a grieving king who will only marry someone as beautiful as his late wife—and unfortunately, the only female in the kingdom who fits the bill is his daughter. Horrified, she must thwart his plans with an escalating series of impossible demands (at the guidance of her fairy godmother) but finds herself on the run incognito wearing the skin of a prized donkey who defecates jewels (really!) where she runs into a prince who will change her destiny.

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Not surprisingly, this tale hasn’t been adapted for American audiences (unless you count the loose “Sapsorrow” version for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller [1987-1988] TV series), but it fits the Demy aesthetic perfectly thanks to the wise decision to keep it light, colorful and sunny, with regular composer Michel Legrand delivering one of his catchiest collections of songs and a gorgeous music score. Demy had been trying to crack this story since the early 1960s and brought in his Cherbourg star Catherine Deneuve to get it off the ground, and she’s wonderful here as one of the screen’s most glamorous, striking fairy tale princesses. Even when smeared in soot and wearing a dead donkey head, she’s still astonishing.

However, the biggest MVP for me here is the splendid Delphine Seyrig as the mischievous, time-hopping Lilac Fairy, who gets to perform the screen’s funniest, most memorable anti-incest song ever recorded. (In typical Demy fashion, she was looped by a professional singer in the final film but her terrific, charming original vocal rendition can be heard on the deluxe soundtrack release.) An indelible presence in such films as Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Daughters of Darkness (1971), and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles(1975), she’s the kind of actress who could seemingly pull off anything in front of a camera. (In fact, Jeanne proved that by following her around in seemingly mundane real time and made it utterly gripping.) Among all the movie fairy godmothers out there, I have to say that Delphine gets my vote as the absolute best – and boy, does she know how to make an entrance (and an exit).

Anyone familiar with classic French cinema will notice the heavy inspiration of Jean Cocteau here, from the casting of frequent muse Jean Marais as the king to the visual touches (painted human statues, glittering gowns, dreamlike passages through physical spaces) that play like a psychedelic updating of Beauty and the Beast (1946). This isn’t a copy and paste job by any means though; Demy knows exactly what he’s doing by taking the playbook of a maestro and giving it a pop 1970s twist, right down to those bouncy songs like “Amour, Amour,” “Conseils de la Fée des Lilas” and one every French kid seems to know, the funny cake-baking classic, “Recette pour un cake d’amour.” It’s no wonder these tunes keep popping up in Legrand concerts to this day… and everyone still knows the words.

The shift to fairy tales and overt supernatural elements clearly agreed with Demy since he decided to follow this up with his second English-language film, a dark and nightmarish version of The Pied Piper (1972) that’s even more twisted than this film and somehow skirted by with a G rating. He would dip into the Cocteau well again one more time, with Marais in tow, for one of his lesser-seen and more undervalued films, Parking (1985), which adapts the Orpheus myth to an 1980s pop music setting. It seems somehow appropriate that Donkey Skin is included in the FilmStruck spotlight called “Happily Ever After?” devoted to unorthodox, “deviant” fairy tales suitable for adults. This one’s among the more kid-friendly of the collection so don’t worry too much about watching it with other viewers of all ages; just be prepared to answer a lot of questions when it’s over!

Nathaniel Thompson

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1 Response Donkey Skin (1970): Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Posted By swac44 : October 8, 2017 11:48 am

After recent pieces on Lola and Une Chambre en Ville, a great reason to pull out the Criterion Demy box set again. Everything about this works for me, from the songs to the animals (I’m a sucker for a singing parrot) to the eye-popping colour schemes (I love that the princess’s servants are basically human sized Smurfs). Also nice to see a fairy tale that keeps the darker elements of the original story, hard to imagine someone attempting a Cinderella that keeps the original ending, children would be running screaming for the exits.

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