Donkey Skin January 16, 2017
Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970) is more into aesthetic pleasures than pleasures that come from the heart, but when the aesthetic’s this nice and the heart's this plastically fairy tale, materialism is excusable. A musical excursion into folklore, the film stars the effervescent Catherine Deneuve as a seventeenth-century princess who becomes the object of her father’s (Jean Marais) romantic affections following the death of her virtuous mother (also played by Deneuve).
Such is creepy, indubitably, but The Princess, young and naive, still thinks like a six-year-old as a result of her royal isolation and isn’t much opposed to the idea of wedding the guy who’s given her a lifetime’s luxury. Even if that said guy was instrumental in her being a living, breathing human. She doesn’t know any better, so it takes the force of her cheeky fairy godmother (a scene stealing Delphine Seyrig) to push her toward a direction that isn’t colored by an incestuous finish.
Convinced that the only way for The Princess to understand that becoming her father’s wife is hardly the best route to go when she still has a long life ahead of her, The Fairy Godmother dirties her earthly goddaughter up and sends her in rags to the local village, where she’s made to become a humble farmworker without wall to wall privilege to cloud her judgment. There does she become acquainted with her neighboring prince (Jacques Perrin), and from there are sparks Cinderella’d dream of set off.
Obvious is the reason why adapting Donkey Skin never became a primary point of interest for Disney and co. — even with its innocent exterior does its incest-concerned storyline unsettle — yet in Demy’s hands is it acceptably bizarre, if only because everything around the storyline is so shamelessly eccentric that it only makes sense for there to be yet another fragment of lunacy lurking about the premises.
This is a movie that recognizes the Technicolor dementia of classic fairy tales and outlines the childishness and subtle moral questionability that oft tickles them pink. Its artistic idiosyncrasy creatively highlights outlandishness, after all. Statues are played by people painted indigo or red. The skins of horses are drowned in the pigmentation of a Crayola box. Animals shit coins and jewels. A setting clashing helicopter even makes way during the movie’s finale.
But the nonchalance that accentuates its themes of immoral love reminds one of the mania that frequently peppers fairy tales. Suddenly, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks getting eaten by ravenous beasts seems like nothing. And neither do ideas of a girl with long hair being trapped in a castle by a controlling parent. Nor do issues circling around a pretty young thing romancing a beast man perplex. All folklore, it seems, is reasonably insane. Is Donkey Skin more so because its discomfort is crystalline rather than metaphorical?
The answer is yes. But it’s a charmer all the same, even if it’s a charmer more for adults than for young children who can’t understand the satire that Demy beckons out of material that wasn't meant to be satirical upon original conception. The auteur’s best-known masterpieces, the entirely sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and the Gene Kelly-supplemented The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), both starring Deneuve, are unequivocally perfect. And Donkey Skin, so wonderfully weird (and decidedly imperfect), is a companion piece to get behind. A-