Donkey Skin
(Peau d'Âne) (1970)
Directed by Jacques Demy

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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After losing his wife, who, before dying, had made him promise to marry only a woman more beautiful than herself, a king (Jean Marais) decides to wed the sole such person he can find, his own daughter (Catherine Deneuve). This princess, advised to avoid such a union by her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), requests that her father first provide her with three impossible dresses, initially one the color of the weather, then one the color of the moon, and finally one the color of the sun. When he manages to do so, she asks that he give her the skin of his magical ass, which defecates gold and jewels and is, consequently, the source of his wealth. He agrees again, flays the ass, and presents its hide to his daughter. With the help of her fairy, the still recalcitrant princess subsequently dresses herself in the poor animal's skin, covers herself in ashes, and escapes. Soon thereafter, she finds employment as a scullion in a palace owned by the royal family of another kingdom, where she wins the heart of the prince (Jacques Perrin) of that land when he chances to see her beauty.

Jacques Demy's telling of Charles Perrault's Donkey Skin is a wonderfully gaudy, frequently weird, and genuinely enjoyable movie.

Unlike the great majority of films that are based on fairy tales, which are sadly bowdlerized, Donkey Skin is suffused with a visceral roughness that makes it far more involving than are most of those trite, innocuous renderings. With presentations of such things as a king who desires to wed his own child, a donkey who defecates riches, and a young woman's servitude in a household where she is despised and mistreated, the director touches upon feelings, fascinations, and fears which rest deep in the viewer's heart and which are able to enthrall and affect him in a way more trivial things could not.

Moreover, the film is a consistent delight visually. It is absolutely filled with strange, often camp images that themselves are sure to keep the moviegoer mesmerized. The heroine's father's throne is an enormous and very tacky stuffed cat. His servants all have indigo faces and his horses indigo hair. Magenta lights play across the walls of his palace, which is adorned with myriads of atrocious paintings and knickknacks, and his daughter is advised by a fairy who dresses like a flapper. Even the court to which the heroine escapes is pleasantly odd. The servants there all have crimson faces and the horses crimson hair. An old crone for whom the poor princess toils coughs up frogs, and the king and queen sit on thrones that are placed in front of a statue of a naked fairy kneeling under a rainbow. There is, in fact, hardly a moment in the whole of the film in which the viewer is not presented with some deliciously bizarre or kitschy costume, prop, or set.

Not satisfied by giving his movie a unique visual flare, Demy has also made it distinctive aurally. Donkey Skin is thus punctuated by a number of songs, which, while never truly brilliant, are both a pleasure to hear and frequently animated by delightfully strange lyrics. In one sung by the heroine's fairy godmother, for instance, that otherworldly lady reminds the princess that girls do not marry their fathers and boys do not marry their mothers.

All these elements, the evocation of a harsh and timeless fairy tale world, the outlandish sets and costumes, and the various songs, as well as numerous anachronisms, as casual asides about batteries and the inclusion of a royal helicopter, create a sense of artificiality, of a universe that exists only on the movie screen. By conjuring up such a liminal reality, Demy is able to engage the viewer directly with his film, rather than trying to trick him into thinking that he is looking at the doings of real people, so that the moviegoer is wholly immersed in its imaginary world. The movie is, as a consequence of this approach, utterly bewitching in a way none of the patently deceptive films that have gained such repute across the world can be.

While I cannot say that the viewer is likely to be awed by Donkey Skin, it is so visually and narratively captivating that he is sure to enjoy the experience of watching it.

Review by Keith Allen

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