For her 100th full-length review, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees disguises herself in an animal hide and ventures into a magical fairytale realm.
"Life is not as easy as you think—even for the daughter of a king."—The Lilac Fairy
Fairy tales may be considered kids' fare these days by all but scholars, but fortunately this wasn't always the case. Seventeenth-century author Charles Perrault, whose versions of such classic fairy tales as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" have been so influential, was writing for a sophisticated audience of French aristocrats, not children. Jean Cocteau's 1946 film adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast," a masterpiece acclaimed for its haunting, poetic power, is also a world away from what's considered children's entertainment. Yet the appeal of fairy tales to children, who are readier than jaded adults to accept the existence of magic, is undeniable.
Donkey Skin (Peau d'Âne), Jacques Demy's 1970 adaptation of one of Perrault's lesser-known tales, is one of the rare fairy tale adaptations that combine child and adult sensibilities. Somewhat in the fashion of Demy's acclaimed 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Donkey Skin uses a simple, linear story line and a timeless plot to show the protagonist progressing from childlike naïveté toward adulthood. The fairy tale, however, gives us the story at a remove, expressed through metaphorical and magical elements. Adults will relish the anachronisms, the tongue-in-cheek humor of the writing and acting, and the way the film pays homage to Cocteau. Children will be drawn in by the splashy, colorful visuals, the songs, and the beautiful heroine. The result is a film that can be enjoyed on many different levels—and now it looks better than ever before, thanks to a gorgeous new restoration.
Facts of the Case
Once upon a time there was a powerful king (Jean Marais of Cocteau's Orphic trilogy) who ruled over the happy Blue Kingdom. He had a beautiful wife (Catherine Deneuve, Belle du Jour), a lovely daughter (also Deneuve), and a magical donkey whose digestive processes transformed ordinary straw into gold and jewels, thus ensuring that the kingdom would never undergo a budgetary crisis. But even mighty kings are not impervious to misfortune, and the king's wife falls ill. As she lies dying, she makes her husband promise that if he remarries he will choose only a woman more beautiful than she. When his advisors pressure him to remarry and provide the kingdom with a male heir, the king finds that the only princess who fulfills his wife's demand is his own daughter.
All too quickly, the king embraces the idea. The princess, panicked, seeks advice from her godmother, the chic Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig, Daughters of Darkness). This shrewd lady advises the princess to put her father off with a delaying tactic: Request, as a wedding gift, a dress so costly and so difficult to make that it must postpone the wedding indefinitely—a dress the color of the weather. But such is the power of her father's obsession that the dress materializes overnight. Finally, after all her other exorbitant demands have been met, the princess requests something she knows her father will not give her: the skin of the donkey who produces his wealth.
Yet this, too, the besotted king gives his daughter. Now her fairy godmother tells her that she must run away, disguising herself in the donkey's skin. (At this point, the princess probably regrets having asked her godmother's advice.) Leaving her father's kingdom, the princess becomes a scullion on a farm, doing menial labor as she endures the taunts and insults of those around her. It's there that the prince of the Red Kingdom (Jacques Perrin, Cinema Paradiso) catches sight of her and realizes that there's a beauty hidden under the donkey's hide. But how can he convince his royal parents that he should marry a servant, let alone one with such an eccentric fashion sense? Fortunately, the clever princess has an idea: She smuggles a ring to him, inspiring him to make the proclamation that he will marry whoever fits the ring.
How, you may be asking yourself, can a film about a man who wants to marry his own daughter be considered a family-friendly comedy? The surprising fact is that Donkey Skin manages to pull this off without being sordid or violating the charm of the story. The writing and acting treat the proposed marriage with steady-eyed sincerity and practically no eroticism, so the dilemma presents itself as strangely innocent. This is a world that operates under its own logic (or illogic), in genuine fairy-tale fashion. The king, we gather, has begun to lose his reason since the death of his wife, and the government ministers are true bureaucrats, concerned only with the kingdom's need for a male heir. The princess, for her part, may be physically an adult, but emotionally she is still a child, whose love for her father is simple, pure, and unquestioning; Deneuve never gives any hint that she's aware of a sexual aspect to marriage. It's only the Lilac Fairy who sees into the heart of the matter and truly understands why this marriage is unsuitable (she even sings a little song to explain it to the princess). Adults will be able to see the plot as a metaphor for a father's having to overcome his reluctance to let his little girl grow up and leave him, just as the princess's journey represents a daughter's growing to maturity and separating from her father to find an appropriate object of love. Even though kids probably won't see either the sinister or the psychological side of the plot, they don't need to; they can still enjoy feeling smarter than the grown-up characters, with their cockeyed ideas and literal-mindedness.
Now that that potentially sticky issue is resolved, let's step back and look at the ravishing production values of the film. Donkey Skin was an expensive film to make; in fact, Demy had contemplated it for years before he was able to raise the money (in the early '60s Brigitte Bardot and Anthony Perkins—yes, that Anthony Perkins—were being considered for the leads). All the money is right there on the screen, making the film a visually dazzling experience that's all the more impressive since it was created before the advent of computer effects. The production combines authentic locations—you'll recognize Chambord castle from its famous double-helix staircase—and a bold, fanciful design style clearly influenced by pop art. The costumes are magnificently over the top, from the Lilac Fairy's platform heels and trailing chiffon streamers to the princess's succession of celestial dresses, each more spectacular than the last, and all with sleeves as big as sofa cushions. A particularly striking visual motif is the red and blue palettes used for the different kingdoms, which extend to body makeup on the servant characters and dyed coats for the horses. You'll also notice lots of visual references to Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, from the living statue and the magic mirror to the presence of Jean Marais, Cocteau's Beast, in a costume greatly reminiscent of one he wore in that landmark film.
Composer Michel Legrand, Demy's collaborator on such musicals as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, also got into the spirit of things. In the liner notes for the soundtrack CD, Legrand reveals that after seeing all the film's visual references to Cocteau, he deliberately incorporated into his score some allusions to the music of Georges Auric, Cocteau's composer, particularly in the "Three Dresses" theme. Legrand's score offers both elegance, in its frequent use of fugue structures to lend the flavor of times past, and playfulness, as in the princess's song about how to bake a "love cake." There is also a charming duet for a fantasy tryst in which the prince and princess turn somersaults, tap a keg, and smoke a pipe together; in the midst of the giddy goings-on, the music expresses a yearning quality, making it the most romantic part of their love story. The songs benefit from the lyrics by Demy, which are as witty as his screenplay. Although the singing for the lead roles was all performed by voice doubles, the singers are an excellent match for the actors and create a seamless impression.
It takes skilled performances to make this mixture of naïveté and knowingness work, and the cast is up to the challenge. Jean Marais brings the appropriate distinguished quality to the king, yet he also retains a certain pathos that makes him sympathetic even in the midst of his weird obsession. Watch how tenderly he kisses the brow of his sleeping daughter—this is a man who truly loves his little girl, even if he's more than a little mixed up about appropriate kinds of love. Screen legend Catherine Deneuve, here a lovely twenty-something, makes an appealing heroine; it's enjoyable to watch her character gain poise as she matures, yet Deneuve does an admirable job of preventing self-awareness from creeping into her characterization of the naïve princess. Throughout, she gives a skillfully understated comic performance. Jacques Perrin, who plays the Red Prince, is better known these days as a director than as an actor: His remarkable documentary Winged Migration recently garnered great acclaim. Here he is just cute as pie; he endows the boyish prince with humor and kindness, and even when conversing with a talking rose he manages to be unselfconscious and, yes, charming. Delphine Seyrig probably has the most enjoyable role as the sophisticated fairy, who has an agenda of her own where the king is concerned. She exudes glamour and fun, and has a gift for making dramatic entrances—especially in the film's final scene. We should all be so lucky as to have a savvy lady like her as a godmother.
Since its VHS release has been out of print for many years—and that was a pan-and-scan job—Donkey Skin would be welcome in just about any form. What a thrill, then, to have a DVD that features the ravishing new restoration spearheaded by Demy's widow, Agnès Varda. The rich, bold color in this new widescreen transfer made me realize just how washed-out the VHS transfer was, and the picture is so much sharper and crisper that I noticed detail I'd never been aware of before. The superb picture is accompanied by marvelously clean audio, which likewise brings out elements that had previously gotten lost or muddied. There isn't much use of bass in the soundtrack, but the highs emerge sweetly, and the clarity of both dialogue and music is admirable. Audio is available in three Dolby Digital options, and the new 5.1 surround mix adds pleasing breadth and resonance, although it doesn't make much use of the aural landscape otherwise. In dialogue portions the surround and stereo tracks actually sound quite similar; it's largely in the orchestral score that one notices greater breadth in the surround track. The subtitles are offered in a choice of yellow or white, a gracious touch.
The only serious defect in the audio (which is present in all three tracks) is the omission of one of the musical cues. Legrand composed a different theme for each of the three dresses the princess demands from her father, but the music for the moon gown is unaccountably missing: That scene now plays without any underscoring at all until the musical sting at the very end. Newcomers to the film probably won't notice anything strange about the scene, but to me it's weirdly flat and affectless without its score. That's the only complaint I have about this restoration, but it definitely upsets me.
Koch Lorber has generously supplemented this film with a number of the extras from the recent two-disc French DVD edition (most of them subtitled), and they represent a wide range in relevance and entertainment value. The nine-minute excerpt from Agnès Varda's 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy is the most valuable extra, offering us vintage behind-the-scenes footage, circa-1970 interview clips of Demy and Jean Marais, and a more recent interview with Catherine Deneuve. The new four-minute interview with producer Mag Bodard also offers some valuable and sometimes surprising insight into the making of the film, which Bodard counts as her favorite among the roughly 100 films she has produced during her career. "The Illustrated Peau d'Âne" shows us how different book illustrators through the centuries have interpreted Perrault's fairy tale. It's intriguing to see how popular this story has been over time; there is an astonishing amount of material here. However, the voiceover narration and audio clips from the film were unnecessary, due to the use of title cards to tell the story, and I ended up muting them. The original French theatrical trailer suffers from poor audio quality and eccentric editing but is worth watching for its enthusiastic voiceover narration and downright goofy spirit—plus the extra parrot footage.
An unusual inclusion is "Peau d'Âne and the Thinkers," a 17-minute chat session in which two psychoanalysts, a literature professor, and the author of a book on Demy's films talk about their interpretations of and reactions to different parts of the film. The psychoanalysis tried my patience, since I have little love for Freudian theory, but it's interesting to hear how differently some people respond to the film. An amiable trifle called "Peau d'Âne and the Children" features schoolchildren retelling (and commenting upon) the story; this is too long at eight minutes, but it does have some cute "kids say the darnedest things" moments. The most baffling of the extras is confusingly called a "photo montage," which led me to expect something akin to a stills gallery, but this sequence actually alternates between close-ups of a comic book that parodies the film and movie stills from the scenes that it's referencing. It's a novelty, but I can't say it enhances the experience of the film, especially since there's no translation offered for the text in the comic book. We also get a generous sampler of trailers for other Koch Lorber releases. (I would have enjoyed it if they'd also included their new Donkey Skin trailer, available on their website, which is beautiful.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suspect that one of the main reasons fairy tales have such universal appeal is that they show us a world in which cruelty and injustice are always punished and the deserving are ultimately rewarded. It's not the way real life works, granted—but that's precisely the source of these stories' allure. It's significant that folk tales like this one became the province of women (in the oral tradition) and children—both of whom were in a position of powerlessness. No wonder children of all ages still feel a kinship with oppressed heroines like Cinderella and Donkey Skin: We like to feel that we, too, will triumph despite the forces that demean or oppress us. In Charlotte Huck's introduction to her children's book Princess Furball, which follows a plot similar to that of Donkey Skin, she notes that the "hated marriage" variant on the Cinderella story recurs often in the folk tradition. Today's readers of fairy tales may not be in danger of being forced into a repugnant marriage, but as a metaphor for being at the mercy of a cruel fate, it's a plot device with wide-ranging relevance.
At the same time, this story will be disappointingly simple to some who do not have an appreciation for fairy tales. Its tone of charm and whimsy doesn't reach the deeper emotional notes of, say, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and since its story makes no pretense of being realistic, those with more sophisticated palates may be bored. I say this with regret, because those who can't enjoy this movie are missing a delight, but I know that it isn't for everyone. Some may prefer the episode "Sapsorrow" in Jim Henson's Storyteller series, a bittersweet variant on the "Donkey Skin" tradition that presents the king as being in a painful dilemma due to forces beyond his control; it's not just the heroine who is in a position of powerlessness in this rendition. Those who prefer a harsher, more adult take may be interested in author Robin McKinley's fantasy novel Deerskin, which retells "Donkey Skin" as the story of a young woman's journey of recovery after being the victim of incestuous rape. Personally, I prefer Demy's lighthearted fantasy, but individual readers and viewers should of course consult their own tastes.
On a more pragmatic note, some children may be turned off by the necessity of reading subtitles, since there's no English dub track for the film. The good news is that the bold visual style and the music may draw youngsters in despite the lack of comprehensible dialogue. And who knows? Donkey Skin could be a painless way to introduce your child to a foreign language.
I'm proud to say I have never outgrown fairy tales. There's still enough of the kid in me to revel in the eye candy and whimsical songs of Donkey Skin, and to enjoy seeing the princess triumphantly surmounting the obstacles to a happy ending. I say "obstacles" since this story is without a villain in the traditional sense: Although the king brings about the central conflict, rather than being a simply evil character like an ogre or witch, he is a complicated, flawed, wholly human character. That makes Donkey Skin more sophisticated than many other fairy tales, as well as more compassionate. A truly magical combination.
The king is declared not guilty by reason of insanity. All other parties are free to live happily ever after—and Koch Lorber is granted special commendation from the bench for its fine DVD treatment of this too little-seen film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Original French Trailer
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