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Donkey Skin

Koch Lorber Films // Unrated // May 10, 2005
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 9, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Those weaned on a strict diet of Disney and Disneyized fantasy will be surprised, even shocked, at the strange but often enchanting Donkey Skin (Peau d'Ane, 1970), a fairy tale with music from the director and composer responsible for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967). Adapted from 17th century writer Charles Perrault's story (Perrault was the creator of Mother Goose)**, Donkey Skin's light-hearted approach to incest and the appearance of a donkey that shits gold coins make it among the movies least likely ever to spawn a big-budget Hollywood remake.

The singularly Franco-flavored story opens with a dying Queen (Catherine Deneuve) insisting that her inconsolable husband, the King (Jean Marais) remarry so that his reign will produce an heir - they have only a daughter, the Royal Princess (also Deneuve). The King eventually decides that the only woman in his kingdom more beautiful than his late wife is his daughter, and resolves to marry her.

Distressed, the Princess turns to her Fairy Godmother (Delphine Seyrig), who arranges for the Princess to run away, disguised in the skin of that royal, gold-shitting donkey. Now a mere scullion employed by an Old Woman who spits live frogs, Donkey Skin/The Princess falls in love with the local Prince (Jacques Perrin), and he with her. But can the Princess' dilemma with her father, to say nothing of the stench generated by her disguise, be overcome?

Donkey Skin walks a fine line between outrageous kitsch and extreme sophistication. It's a movie made by adults for children, but told from a childlike point-of-view where the juxtaposition of movie real locations with theatrically artificial props and costumes becomes irrelevant. At the same time it's also a film for adults, both as a kind of nostalgia for one's childhood (something lost on non-Europeans unfamiliar with the story), but also to look at its story anew, with the maturity and wisdom of adulthood.

The taboo element of a King wanting to marry his daughter, as psychologists in the film's supplementary materials and Demy himself point out, is not such an unnatural act as far as a young child is concerned. Most little girls, they point out, at some point want to marry their daddies. Only as adults looking at the story again does this element have its unsavory air, though it's also clear that the film hardly supports the practice, and Demy's use of Deneuve in both the role of the Queen and her daughter softens its impact, suggesting perhaps the King, overcome with loneliness, turned to his look-alike daughter as a means of continuing his long relationship. (The use of gay actor Jean Marais helps, too, rendering his intentions more romanticized than lustful.)

Marais' presence also inevitably references the great director Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast), with images Demy admitted he created in tribute to one of his major influences. The picture abounds with elaborate visuals: a throne that's a giant, white pussycat, like something out of The NeverEnding Story; a talking rose with a single eye resting in its petals; a glass coffin for the Queen, like Snow White, only globular, like an enormous Christmas ornament. One wonders the influence the film might in turn have had on director Tim Burton; a wizard (Henri Cremieux) in the film is a dead ringer for Danny DeVito's Penguin. Most intriguing is Demy's use of anachronistic imagery, such as the '20s flapper look of the Fairy Godmother, and most famously a helicopter that turns up near the end.

Michel Legrand's songs aren't up to the level of those in Umbrellas and The Young Girls, partly because they have a more definably early-'70s sound versus the timelessness of Legrand's earlier scores. Nevertheless, several numbers are catchy, and undeniably will stay with you days after seeing the picture.

Video & Audio

Koch Lorber's DVD is a fine presentation, in 16:9 anamorphic format approximating its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio. (The credits have slivers of black bars on the sides.) The opening titles look muddy and murky, but the rest of the film almost looks brand new, with sharp detail and fine color (original lab: Eclair). There are an unusually large number of viewing options, including optional subtitles in English and Spanish, in either yellow or white font. Similarly, the French audio is available in 5.1 surround, 2.0 stereo, or mono. One guess the film was originally released mono, and that the stereo mixes were created (from multi-track original recordings of the score) for its 2003 restoration/reissue. These new mixes are fully stereophonic and impressive.

Extra Features

The DVD is a real surprise, crammed with more than enough extras to make favorable comparisons with Criterion and other supplement-stuffed labels. First is the Original Theatrical Trailer, in French and subtitled in English, which confirms that Demy saw a lot of humor in the material. It's also in 16:9 format.

Interview with Mag Bodard is a too-short four-minute piece with Demy's longtime producer, now in her late-80s. She shares her observations on the film's lasting appeal and nuts and bolts production info. The Illustrated Peau d'Ane is a terrific featurette about the story's publication history, which then uses illustrations from various editions and audio from the movie to recreate the experience of reading it over several centuries. A unique and intriguing feature.

Peau d'Ane and the Thinkers is an interesting quasi-round table discussion with psychologists Lucile Durmeyer and Jean-Claude Polack, literature professor Liliane Picciola and Demy biographer Camille Tabouley. It runs 16 minutes and like the Mag Bodard interview is in full frame format. Peau d'Ane and the Children is much the same, featuring children's reactions to a screening of the film at their school.

A Photo Montage by Claire Bretecher isn't much, but an Excerpt from Agnes Varda's The World of Jacques Demy offers rare behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, including an on location visit from The Doors' Jim Morrison.

Parting Thoughts

Donkey Skin is a fanciful tale parents might enjoy sharing with older children (who don't mind reading subtitles). It requires truckloads of suspended disbelief, but the results are well worth it.

**Reader Sergei Hasenecz writes, "Charles Perrault was not the creator of Mother Goose. Mother Goose is a folkloric character whose origins have been traced all the way back to Charlemagne's mother, Bertrada (died 783), which predates Perrault's lifetime by about 900 years. Bertrada was "a patron of children," according to one source. (Shouldn't that be "matron of children"?) She was known as Queen Goosefoot, and figures in a number of Carolingian legends. None of the stories Perrault told were original to him, either. He collected oral-tradition fairy tales the way the Brothers Grimm would later do. His is probably the first collection of such stories, which he attributes to "Mother Goose."

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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