Film/DVD: review

Donkey Skin
Peau d'âne

Donkey Skin
Directed by Jacques Demy
 
1970, France — 89 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.65:1 — Musical Fantasy

Lavish musical fairy tale, starring Catherine Deneuve (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Jean Marais (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast), about a widowed king who insists that his second wife be as beautiful as his first.

Review

ImageJacques Demy's original musical fantasy Donkey Skin (1970) offers many delights, from its opulent set and costume design to the luminous Catherine Deneuve in a dual role (playing both the Queen and her daughter Princess "Donkey Skin") and Jean Marais, still effortlessly commanding the screen a quarter century after Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. In fact, this film allows Demy to pay loving tribute to Cocteau, one of his favorite filmmakers, whose spirit permeates almost every frame. Demy wrote both Donkey Skin's screenplay and lyrics directly for the screen, collaborating with his longtime musical collaborator Michel Legrand, who scored ten of Demy's fifteen features, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After my enthusiastic reviews of Demy's earlier films appeared, several people wrote to say that Donkey Skin is his greatest work. Although I have a different take, it is a privilege finally to have it on DVD, especially in a pristine digital restoration, with the vibrant color and sound which this ambitious picture deserves. If you are interested in Demy, the film musical, or cinematic adaptations of fairy tales – Donkey Skin is based on a story by seventeenth century author Charles Perrault ("Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Puss in Boots") – then this film is a must-see.

ImageDemy follows the original tale almost scene for scene, while injecting his unique sensibility. A King (Jean Marais) loses his beloved Queen (Catherine Deneuve), whose dying wish is for him to remarry, but only to "a woman more beautiful than I." His advisors urge him to find a new Queen, for the good of the kingdom, but none strike his fancy. At last his attentions turn to his own radiant daughter, who is the youthful image of his dead wife (and well she should be, since she's also played by Catherine Deneuve). With the help of the arch Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig), the Princess nervously flees marriage to her father by wearing the skin of his prize magical donkey (gold coins literally cascaded out of its rear). She hides out in a neighboring kingdom, where she is ridiculed by the townspeople (in truth, the donkey pelt has begun to smell horribly) and can only find work for a hag so cruel that every time she speaks a frog pops out of her mouth. When a handsome young Prince (Jacques Perrin) comes to town, he falls madly in love with the disguised Princess, not knowing her true identity. The Prince is so enamored that he can't even get out of bed, spending all of his time (literally) fantasizing about her. His distraught parents, the Red King (Fernand Ledoux) and Red Queen (Micheline Presle), send an envoy to the "scullery wench," telling her to bake their son a special cake... and indeed she does. Inside, the Prince finds a golden ring, and vows to marry only the woman whose finger it fits (shades of Cinderella's glass slipper). After trying it on every over-eager woman in the kingdom, at last Donkey Skin appears.The entire court holds both its breath and its noses as the Prince tries the ring on her finger. Will it be "happily ever after"?

ImageThis was Demy's sixth feature, after his acclaimed Lola (1961), Bay of Angels (1963), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), not to mention his ill-fated Hollywood movie, The Model Shop (1969), which quickly sent him packing back to his native France. With Donkey Skin, Demy has said that he wanted to create a film which was both an homage to his beloved Jean Cocteau and a recreation of his own childhood impressions of a favorite fairy tale.

In terms of Cocteau, I'm reminded of Constable Dogberry's famous line in Much Ado About Nothing: "Comparisons are odorous" (III.v.14). Odious too, for that matter, yet they can be revealing. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) is one of the most astonishing, moving, and sublime films I have ever seen, so I'm naturally skeptical of any homages to it, even when by a filmmaker I admire as much as Demy. How successful or not you think Donkey Skin stands in relation to Cocteau is, of course, a personal matter: I urge you to see the films and decide for yourself. For me, I found Demy's film uneven, despite several compelling aspects of performance, design and, especially, implication.

ImageA major problem with this film involves the interior lighting, which emphasized – and I do not believe it was intentional – the inauthenticity of the admittedly lavish sets and costumes. You may be thinking, of course it's "inauthentic:" it's a fantasy! You may also be thinking of the distinguished career of the great cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (1924–1982), who shot such important films as Resnais's Night and Fog (1955), Becker's Le Trou (1960), Arthur Penn's Mickey One (1965), Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966; about a most un-magical donkey), Mouchette (1967) and Une femme douce (1969), Godard's segment "Caméra-oeil" in Far From Vietnam (1967), and Polanski's Tess (1979), not to mention Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975) and Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (1968). But the flat, high-key lighting, reminiscent of television, reveals the obviously manufactured look of the fabrics and decor. I was not able to find the length of time Demy had to shoot this film, but my guess is that producer Mag Bodard (Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar and Une femme douce; Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort) placed him under severe constraints, especially after the failure of The Model Shop. In any event, the counterproductive lighting negates my suspension of disbelief. By contrast, Cocteau and director of photography Henri Alkan's moody, ambiguous black and white images for Beauty and the Beast perfectly create a fantasy world which looks and feels lived-in, despite the fact that they have drawn their inspiration from such well-known, and diverse, artists as Vermeer and Doré. The fact that Demy sets up many shots to parallel Cocteau (note the living caryatids, mirrors, costumes, and much more) just draws attention to the, I believe, different levels of visual success of the two films.

There are some comparable films shot in color, made within a few years of Donkey Skin, which succeed brilliantly within the stylistic confines of this film (real locations, flat interior lighting, fantastical situations). Two works which immediately come to mind are Rivette's masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (1973) and Herzog's Nosferatu (1979; a profound reimagining of Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu). My point is not that Demy is working within an 'impossible' aesthetic, just that he does not often seem to fully realize his own intentions.

ImageOn a more positive note, Demy's interior lighting does bring out – as we can see in this superb DVD transfer – the eye-popping vividness of the colors, which play such an integral part of his design. In fact, color seems to take on a life of its own, providing part of the film's momentum. Just look at, or even luxuriate in, the rich purple of the King's robes (recreating Marais's costumes from Beauty and the Beast), the bright blue faces of his courtiers, the lush scarlet associated with the Red King's realm, and – in the early scenes in which the Princess fends off her father's proposal – the magical color changes of her dress (Demy used the same material as that of movie screens, so that he could project textural images onto it).

ImageCloquet and Demy are much more successful in using natural light in the film's many exterior shots, including the many forest scenes. They are quite successful in making the woods seem subtly mysterious, achieved through a careful use of shadowy areas, while never resorting to any special effects. For me, the most glorious moment in the entire film is the early sequence of the Queen's funeral cortège, as her body is carried in a huge glass bubble to her final resting place. In just three shots, composition, angles (distorted but perfectly mirroring the King's and Princess's anguish), color (what can only be called a mournful blue), and design all come together to create a simple but breathtaking live-action fantasy moment, which is also one of the most beautiful and moving sequences in any Demy film.

Getting back to my problem with the interior lighting, it points up a more pervasive disconnection I felt between Demy's concept, of recreating a child's impression of a fairy tale, and its execution throughout the film. You may certainly have a different impression (as mentioned above, many people consider this one of Demy's greatest films), but I often felt that Demy was not fully realizing his vision, whether or not because of an insufficient production schedule. Some viewers may argue that Demy was purposely going for an "alienation effect," in effect creating a commentary on the tale and, by extension, its audience. And Demy had been part of the French New Wave crowd, which included such masters of that technique as Godard (Cloquet had even shot Far From Vietnam). But my instincts tell me that that is not the case. It seems that a more generous production schedule would have yielded a more polished, and less "alienating," film.

Of the lead actors, only Marais feels like he is fully inhabiting his role. His performance is both committed and natural, never losing sight of the fact the he is both a King and a man. He also succeeds at subtly bringing out the dark layers of his character as written by Perrault (the creator of Mother Goose but of "Bluebeard" too), although the incestuous aspects of the original 1694 verse tale "Peau-d'Ane" were removed when later authors, most famously Andrew Lang in his The Grey Fairy Book (1900), retold it in prose. (Jean Marais (1913–1998) was a major box office star in France from the '40s through the '60s, appearing in most of his lover Cocteau's greatest films, including Orpheus, 1949, as well as Visconti's Le Notti bianche, 1957, and Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, 1996; he worked one more time with Demy, playing the Devil in Parking, 1985, a riff on the Orpheus myth.)

ImageThe inimitable Catherine Deneuve has one of the most celebrated careers in film (Polanski's Repulsion, Buñuel's Belle de jour and Tristana, Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid and The Last Metro), yet here she never seems at one with her character of the Princess, although the brief early scenes in which she plays the dying Queen are compelling. That may be as much Demy, and Legrand's, responsibility as her own. Demy insists on photographing Deneuve with the most glamorous possible lighting, including would-be magical starburst filters, but that only lessens the integrity of her performance. Deneuve is one of the most magnetic performers in film history: she hardly needs any special lighting effects. While Marais manages to bring fullness to his role – even though he is rarely on screen after the first act – Demy never allows Deneuve the same opportunity. Both in his writing and direction, he seems to almost objectify her as the Pretty But Spunky Princess. Demy gives her the most hauntingly beautiful song in the score (there are only seven different musical numbers, but Deneuve's is repeated dozens of times, even by a squawking parrot), with its refrain obsessively repeating, "Love, love, I love you so!" (Clearly, the Princess is not familiar with Rodgers and Hart's cautionary standard from the stage musical The Boys from Syracuse (1938): "Falling in Love With Love is Falling for Make Believe;" the lyric continues, "Falling in love with love is playing the fool.") What makes Demy's decision to "flatten" the Princess even more disappointing is that she is by far the most intriguing character in the tale, with the greatest potential for emotional richness – and Deneuve is absolutely capable of expressing that range. Yet it is only rarely allowed to peek through, in a small gesture here or a facial expression there.

ImageFor instance, Demy could have explored – even lightly and by implication – the central paradox of Princess Donkey Skin's condition. Namely, she is putting on a disguise which is intimately connected with what she is afraid of and running away from: raw animal nature, as exemplified by her father's incestuous desire. But even with Marais's full-bodied performance, Demy never allows him to show even the slightest sexual interest in his daughter. The implication is he's marrying her because his ministers are making him, for reasons of state, and because he must obey his dead wife's dying wish. The potential psychological subtext of this film is both deep and troubling, but I never felt it being realized through Demy's script or his direction of the talented cast: it hovers about the margins, but only because it is in implicit in Perrault's original tale (no one could have been fooled by Andrew Lang's bowderlization of the incest theme in the Victorian English-language version, still widely read today). More affirmatively, the skin could also be read as a connection between the Princess, who has spent her entire life literally shut up in a castle, and nature. Despite the donkey's super-natural coin-making abilities, he is still a real animal, at least in his pre-pelt phase. Also, there is an obvious contrast between the innocent beauty of the Princess and the bloody skin of the donkey, but the hide is so clearly a prop (sanitized in every sense of the word) that it doesn't resonate. Instead, the donkey skin is used, repeatedly, for easy laughs about how smelly it is (it even inspires an entire musical routine featuring the olfactorily offended villagers). Of course, you can read the deeper implications I've just noted into the film if you want, but that's only because they are inherent in the original tale and not because Demy is using them to inflect, and enrich, his picture.

ImageA talent even more underutilized than Deneueve is the fabulous Delphine Seyrig, who plays the Lilac Fairy (her vast collars would have been the envy of even Elizabeth the Great). (Seyrig (1932–1990) starred in Resnais's labyrinthine landmark Last Year at Marienbad (Sacha Pitoëff co-starred as her husband – here he plays The Minister) and Muriel, Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, Losey's Accident, Buñuel's The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Duras's India Song.) In this film, Seyrig is given, metaphorically, only one note to sing as the Princess's sassy supernatural helper. But Demy seems less interested in giving the Lilac Fairy any kind of a resonant characterization than in paying homage to an even earlier (French) tradition of film fantasy, namely, the pioneering special effects of Georges Méliès (1861–1938). Note the many times the Lilac Fairy "magically" changes costumes during her patter song: Demy, like his distant predecessor, simply stops the camera, has Seyrig change costume, then continues shooting. Méliès showed, in films like the still-delightful "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), that even the most low-tech effects can still be special; but here, again, they seem to be dictated by budget rather than aesthetics. (The slow-motion effect of the Lilac Fairy descending, and re-ascending, through the ceiling is lifted directly from Beauty and the Beast.)

ImageJacques Perrin, as the Prince (called Prince Charming in the credits, but not in the dialogue), almost seems to be taking on the traditional ingenue role: he is primarily used as eye candy. This passive character lacks even the spunk of such supporting figures as his parents, the Red King and Queen, not to mention their flunkies. In fact, Perrin is not only model-handsome, in a boy-next-door kind of way, but an actor and producer with a long and distinguished career, which includes major roles in five films by Costa-Gavras, including Z and State of Siege, which he also co-produced. The Prince spending most of the final third of the film moping in bed only adds to the, pun intended, ingenuousness of the character, not to mention the inherent silliness of his lovesick state. Whenever he and Deneuve share the screen, the effect is startling: he simply vanishes in her effortlessly luminous presence. When he is on his own, he is more effective at depicting the "type" which Demy intended. For a character whose appeal is defined solely by his looks, it's interesting to note how few close-ups we get of the Prince: perhaps Demy, who was very discreet about his being gay (he was married to director Agnès Varda), did not want to draw too much attention to this icon of male beauty. By contrast, perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of Demy's exceptional early films (Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), which I have written about in my reviews, is his use of complex and fascinating male characters. Everyone rightly acclaims the brilliant performances by his actresses in those films, respectively Anouk Aimée, Jeanne Moreau, and Deneuve, but the male leads are also richly drawn and portrayed.

ImageDespite, or perhaps because of, the opulent sets and costumes, Demy undercuts the full, troubling possibilities of the tale and his own film. Perrault's darkness only seeps out, briefly, in Demy's lyrics, as when the Prince sings, "Love hides inside the heart like a thief / And secretly plots its destruction, / Like a worm inside a cherry remembering happy days." (Shades of William Blake's short poem, "The Sick Rose" (1794), presented here in full: "O Rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm, / That flies in the night, / In the howling storm: / Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy, / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.") At other times, Legrand's music, especially in the chromatic minor-key main number (sung by the Princess and repeated countless times in underscoring), hints at troubling things. (With the exception of that principal theme, this is not one of Legrand's most memorable scores, which include such extraordinarily diverse works as Godard's A Woman is a Woman, My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders, Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair, Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers, Malle's Atlantic City, Demme's Melvin and Howard, and dozens more, including his ten works with Demy.) If only Demy could have found a way to weave the tension of that melody – which is also, perhaps even more importantly, the tension at the heart of Perrault's tale – through his images, as well as his direction of the actors (instead of just Marais). The film opens with the authoritative offscreen narrator (Jean Servais of Dassin's Rififi, Franju's Thomas the Impostor) intoning that "the greatest good is always mixed with evil," but that complexity is, at least for me, too rarely and indirectly realized. If it had been, this film would have been both more intellectually rich and emotionally powerful, and perhaps a great film fantasy.

On a more basic level, genre-defining fantasies – whether stupendous epics like The Lord of the Rings (both Tolkien's novels and Peter Jackson's films) or intimate character studies like Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus – succeed when they create an emotional, as opposed to a literalistic, reality. With Donkey Skin, I never felt a connection with this film, largely because I never sensed its parts, some of which were visually dazzling, emotionally connected with each other – although I know that many people are moved by this picture. For me, it seems telling that the only duet between the Princess and Prince has them in spectral, translucent form (the Prince is lying in bed, fantasizing the entire musical number): on every level, they are simply not real, despite Legrand's lush melody and Demy's witty lyrics. Demy succeeded on every level in his landmark musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to let the most basic, and raw, human passions sing out; he re-created an entire world, grounded on the everyday working class life of the title town, and then convinced me that everyone in it could sing, non-stop, about everything. That was real magic, and emotional truth. If only Donkey Skin, a tale of literal magic, could have united life and passion and songs as well.

Still, there is much to enjoy in this film, from the various performance and design elements noted above to several surprises, as when the King woos his daughter by reading her snippets of "the poets of tomorrow" (Guillaume Apollinaire's "L'Amour" from Le Guetteur Mélancolique and Cocteau's "Les Muses" from L'Ode à Picasso), or how he appears, and with whom, in the final scene. Let me close by saying again how much I admire and enjoy Demy's films, and by how fortunate we are to have such an exceptional transfer of Donkey Skin, which many people see very differently from myself, regarding it as one of his greatest achievements. I urge you to see this picture and decide for yourselves what to make of it. Now, if I can just get that haunting main theme out of my head....

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Crew

  • Written (screenplay and lyrics) & Directed by Jacques Demy
  • Based on a story by Charles Perrault
  • Music (composed and conducted) by Michel Legrand
  • Produced by Mag Bodard
  • Cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet
  • Edited by Anne-Marie Cotret
  • Art Direction by Jacques Dugied
  • Production Management by Philippe Dussart

Cast

  • Catherine Deneuve as both The Queen and her daughter Princess "Donkey Skin"
  • Jean Marais as The King
  • Jacques Perrin as The Prince
  • Micheline Presle as The Red Queen
  • Delphine Seyrig as The Fairy
  • Fernand Ledoux as The Red King
  • Henri Crémieux as The Doctor
  • Sacha Pitoëff as The Minister
  • Pierre Repp as Thibaud
  • Jean Servais (voice) as The Narrator
  • Anne Germain (singing voice of Princess "Donkey Skin")
  • Jacques Revaux (singing voice of The Prince)

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DVD

Koch Lorber Films presents a pristine new DVD transfer of Donkey Skin, digitally restored and re-mastered with full-bodied sound, as well as several special features.

DVD Details

Reviewed May 10, 2005

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