Criterion: Donkey Skin

DONKEY SKIN, JACQUES DEMY, 1970

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After watching two New Wave-ish films, and the two arguably most popular French musicals of all time, the last thing I expected was a surrealistic and unusual fairy tale. It is based on one of French Author Charles Perrault’s (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) lesser-known fairy tales, and is nearly a reverse Beauty and the Beast, which was not a Perrault work.

The tale begins with a king losing his fair wife and promising to not re-marry any princess that is not as lovely as her. This seems to be a typical and benign fairy tale premise until it takes a wide left turn. After reviewing the available princesses, he finds that none are worthy of the vow. Finally he realizes that there is one princess that he has forgotten to consider, his own daughter, played by Catherine Deneuve. He decides he must marry her. She isn’t opposed to the idea since she loves her father, but for some reason it doesn’t feel right. She demands that specific colored dresses be made for her, which the king obliges, until she finally requests a dress made out of the hide of a Donkey that, umm, defecates jewels. The king also obliges, and she uses this skin as a disguise to escape.

If that doesn’t sound weird enough, much of the rest of the film has Deneuve traipsing around with a Donkey head on top of her, looking ridiculously silly. On top of that, she encounters a kingdom that is obsessed with the color red. Everything is painted red, including the horses. The fairy tale aspect reminded me in a way of Louis Malle’s Black Moon, albeit with a clearer narrative and without the nudity. To my surprise, I found in the supplements that Demy intended this to be a children’s film, and he said that the incestual content would not seem unusual to young children because they naturally love their parents. I’m no prude, but I wouldn’t show my children a movie that even touches on them having a relationship with their parents, but maybe he is right that a child would miss this taboo. It’s difficult to put yourself in that position as an adult.

While this one doesn’t exactly fit tightly into the already established Demy oeuvre, it contains many elements that are familiar from his earlier films. I wouldn’t call this a musical, but it does contain a few Michel Legrand songs, which the actors sing in the same manner as Umbrellas and Rochefort, clearly lip-synching. The use of color and attention to detail is also Demy-esque. This is the case in the first palace, but it really stands out in the latter kingdom with the strong red color scheme. The costumes are also fantastic, and overall this is a technically accomplished film.

The problem is everything else. This does not quite work as a children’s fairy tale, and the reverse Beauty and the Beast plot is mundane and lazy. Some scenes go on for far too long, such as when the king is reviewing princesses, or later when the prince is trying to fit a ring on a maiden’s finger. It seems that Demy meant this as a commercial work without saying much. I’d say he failed on that level, yet still managed to put together a visual feast.

Film Rating: 4.5/10

Supplements:

Pour Le Cinema: This French TV program contained set interviews with Demy, Deneuve, Marais and others. This is the supplement that has Demy talking about how the children would not pick up on the incest theme. Aside from that, most of it was light and promotional, with the participants talking about how much they liked working on the film.

Donkey Skin Illustrated: This was rather interesting. They showed sketches, drawings and paintings inspired by the story. The best ones were those of the princess wearing her donkey skin. Many of them were the way that Demy portrayed it on screen.

2008 Discussion: This is a round table discussion with a critic, psychoanalyst, and literary buff about the film and it’s themes. While I said above that the film said very little, they brought out a few themes that I had missed, like the theme of liberation that embodied hippie generation of the time.

Demy AFI Interview: This was an audio recording at AFI, which I didn’t listen to in its entirety. In the parts I listened to, they talked about the process. Unlike a lot of other lighter interviews (like the French TV one), the AFI asks good questions about the filmic elements. It seems like an interesting interview.

Criterion Rating: 5.5/10

Posted on September 6, 2014, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I have to disagree with you on the merits of this one. I dig the overall campy nature of the film and really enjoy the strange way Demy mixes Cocteau and Disney. I felt there was a lot being said in the film about transgressive desire and liberation the two times I have seen it. It’s certainly flawed, though. A kid’s film? Really? That’s as funny as when Ralph Bakshi said his rather violent fantasy flick Wizards was supposed to be for children.

    • You make good points. I saw this before revisiting Beauty and the Beast, so the Cocteau nods were not all fresh in my mind, but Donkey Skin came back to me a few times during that writing. It is definitely flawed and has some problems, but my initial response was probably too harsh. This isn’t a film that screams for an occasional rewatch, but someday I may revisit.

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