DONKEY SKIN (Peau d’Ane)(director/writer: Jacques Demy; screenwriter: from a story by Charles Perrault; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Anne-Marie Cotret; music: Michel Legrand; cast: Catherine Deneuve (La première reine/Peau d’âne), Jean Marais (Le premier roi/The King), Delphine Seyrig (La fée des lilas/The Fairy), Micheline Presle (La Reine Rouge, la seconde reine), Jacques Perrin ( Le prince charmant/The Prince); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mag Bodard; Janus Films; 1970-France, in French with English subtitles)
“Demy creates a surreal dream world that is estranged from the reality of time or place.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jacques Demy’s (“Umbrellas of Cherbourg”/”Lola”) transfer to film of the 17th century fairy tale “Peau d’ ane” by Charles Perrault (who gave us Cinderella) into a musical with the aid of Michel Legrand’s wonderful score never materializes as a great work. Though spiced with fun, gleeful silliness, tinges of touching melancholy and tragedy, and lushly photographed, this extravaganza lacked the vitality to make me gulp with wonder at the strange occurrences.
Demy’s fairy tale is set in an ethereal medieval kingdom of a king (Jean Marais), his queen (Catherine Deneuve), and their beautiful daughter, the princess (also played by Catherine Deneuve). The Queen is suddenly taken ill and dies. On her deathbed, the king promises to honor her request that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she. Pressured by his Council to remarry quickly for political reasons, the king is unable to find such a woman and out of desperation chooses his daughter. Stunned in horror and confused by the incest involved the princess seeks the advice of her oddball godmother, the “lilac fairy” (Delphine Seyrig), who helps her stall the marriage by telling her to make impossible demands for her wedding gifts. Eventually she flees her father’s castle in one of those gifts, the skin of a magic donkey which holds inside valuable jewels.
The daughter takes shelter in a poor village where she performs menial work to survive and is ridiculed by the other workers for being dressed in her filthy donkey skin. As with Cinderella, a handsome Prince Charming (Jacques Perrin) from a neighboring village falls in love with her on first sight and after much effort to see her again eventually finds her and they live happily ever after.
Demy creates a surreal dream world that is estranged from the reality of time or place, and by existing solely in a fairytale/fantasy space the film never transfers a true blast of earthbound tensions to the viewer (at least to me). It would be like an adult reading a children’s fairy tale book and being expected to be sated by the irony of contrasting the seemingly idyllic fairy tale world with the never ending imperfections of the real world. The problem is that this is a film for children (or outsiders), but is too childlike in its telling for adults to savor and too adultlike in its more subtle themes for children to fully appreciate. Instead it becomes a visionary exercise, Jean Cocteau-like if you will, in its idealistic visions reflecting the discomfort over possible incest and how perverse the so-called normal people can become when they are pressured by life’s everyday demands. Though that point is well-taken, it needed to be more grounded in reality for it to be more than a beautiful fancy of flight film.
REVIEWED ON 3/31/2004 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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