‘Donkey Skin’ Jeremy Carr Takes Another Look at Jacques Demy’s Gorgeous Fairytale

If a radiant detour from reality contributed to the appeal of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), his excellent musical duo with their rainbow hues and harmonic exchanges, it is an illusory path that overwhelmingly consumes his 1970 feature, Donkey Skin (Peau d’Âne). Based on Charles Perrault’s 1695 fairy tale Donkeyskin, Demy’s adaptation retains and expands the storybook scenario, giving it vivid life, visualizing a surreal world of dazzling color, supernatural possibility, and pleasant, if unorthodox, romance.

Once upon a time… the court of a popular king (Jean Marais) is suddenly stricken by sadness when the queen (Catherine Deneuve) falls ill. Just before she passes, she implores her husband to remarry a princess more beautiful than she. The king is a kind man who lives an agreeable life of abundance thanks to his “banker”—a magical donkey that discharges a torrent of jewels from, well, somewhere—but there are apparently few amorous options in the realm. “Have fairy tale princesses all disappeared?” he self-consciously laments.

Still, one young woman does stand out. She is indeed gorgeous—an obvious choice. But she is also his daughter. The princess (Deneuve again), a bewitching beauty, is opposed to the marital suggestion (though she isn’t nearly as shocked as one might expect). She conspires with her godmother, the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig), to compile for the king a list of increasingly incredible demands (a dress that looks like the weather, for instance). Yet each outlandish desire is ultimately met by the king. Finally, she requests the skin of the blessed donkey—thus curtailing the king’s income—but amazingly once again, her wish is his command.

The princess flees the kingdom, disguised as the outwardly repulsived Donkey Skin, and seeks refuge in the countryside. There, she is glimpsed by a neighboring prince (Jacques Perrin), who sees her in her regular form and is instantly smitten. Incapacitated by his love-struck vision, he arranges a ring-fitting in order to identify his mysterious love (the princess had baked her ring into a remedial cake delivered to the prince). As their enigmatic fondness transcends time and space, it becomes a relationship that is both charmed and unpredictable – like Donkey Skin itself. And of course, it has a happy ending.

Donkey Skin is considerably less common than Perrault’s more famous stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, in large part because of its suggestions of incest and other sexual subtext (though Demy insists it’s only adults with dirty minds who distort things). If Donkey Skin the film has a mythical antecedent, though, at least in the cinema, it would be Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Demy incorporates multiple allusions to that remarkable picture, most prominently in the stately casting of Marais, who played the Beast, but also in some of Donkey Skin’s low-key special effects, effectively achieved by slow motion, stop motion, projection, and superimposition.

Another recognizable face from the French screen is Seyrig, who was by this point known for Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and The Milky Way (1969), among others, with her astounding turn in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,  still five years down the road. As with Demy’s Cherbourg and Rochefort, however, it is Deneuve who most impresses. Following her breakthrough in the former feature, she entered into an exceptional period of productivity, alongside some of the world’s greatest directors: Repulsion (1965) with Roman Polanski, Mississippi Mermaid (1969) with François Truffaut, and Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (earlier in 1970), both with Luis Buñuel.

If there’s Donkey Skin has one shortcoming, it’s the attempt to make her repellant, with a soiled face under a putrid animal hide (which was real, unbeknownst to Deneuve). It succeeds as far as the plot is concerned, but there is nothing Demy can do to diminish the luminous presence of this extraordinary actress. Quite like an enchanted princess, Deneuve radiates tremendous allure, physically and with her demure performance.

Just before making Donkey Skin, Demy spent two years in America with his wife, Agnes Varda, where they each directed a film; his was the unappreciated Model Shop (1969). Returning to France for this fascinating follow-up, he brought back on-board Michel Legrand, the composer whose melodies were essential to Cherbourg and Rochefort (Deneuve singing the cake recipe is one of Donkey Skin’s more tuneful moments). He was also collaborating with Rochefort cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who had done or would do phenomenal work with the likes of Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson, Woody Allen, and Polanski.

Partially shot in actual French castles,  Donkey Skin‘s locations are among its more striking features. The film’s setting is bursting with color, extravagant ornamentation, and a quirky artificiality. The interiors come alive—quite literally, as some statues are “played” by actors—with multi-colored accents, natural textures (vines, flowers, animal designs), and a kaleidoscopic tableau of jewel-encrusted bedspreads and shimmering embellishments. Add in pictorial peculiarities like painted servants and horses (red or blue, depending on the kingdom), and it’s all but impossible to take in the boldness of Demy’s design in just one viewing.

It is said Jacques Demy greatly enjoyed staging puppet shows as child, and his version of Donkey Skin conveys a similar sort of youthful creation, not in terms of any infantile simplicity, but in terms of its willingness to take audacious chances with supreme confidence. The film embraces its eccentric touches (a rotary phone in the faraway forest, a final scene complete with helicopter), and it supports a whimsical narrative guided by easily-accepted dream logic. There is, like much of Demy’s filmography, a musical grace and captivating ambience to the entire picture.

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