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  • Ravi Swami

"Peau d'âne" / "Donkey Skin", Dir: Jacques Demy, 1970

It's taken me a while to get around to watching Jacques Demy's 1970 film "Peau d'âne" ("Eng: "Donkey Skin") primarily because I had reservations about the film and considered it to be "late Demy" and suggestive of a gradual decline following the early successes of "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Les Demoiselles De Rochefort" that form part of a loose quartet of films linked by connected narratives that began with "Lola" and ended with the 1969 film, "Model Shop".

I watched the film on Criterion Channel, the online streaming service of Criterion Films that includes a fascinating set of extras in the form of interviews with Demy and in particular a short documentary made during the filming of "Donkey Skin" in which both he and his long-time collaborator / producer, Mag Bodard, offer the opinion that "Les Demoiselles" pushed the novel concept of a film where all the dialogue is sung instead of spoken further away from the grounded-in-reality of "Umbrellas", which is interesting since "Les Demoiselles" is my favourite of all his films, perhaps more for its' joyous mood than in being particularly realistic.

"Les Demoiselles" could be viewed as having a fairytale quality about it even if it has in common with "Umbrellas" a similar banal setting of a provincial French coastal town and it is possible that Demy decided to change tack and revisit his early influences via the staging of the fairytales of Perrault in puppet shows performed by him, for his friends and family, without trying to update them in any way or by placing them in a contemporary setting.

I discovered that "Donkey Skin" was as much of a commercial success as Demy's earlier films and is remembered fondly by a generation of both adults and children in France and may not be as widely known simply because it is based on the work of a French writer of fairytales whose work is less familiar outside of the country.

The film stars Demy's muse from "Umbrellas" and Les Demoiselles", Catherine Deneuve, and was the primary hook for watching a film I knew little about other than it being a rather quirky period piece that seemed aimed at a younger audience (Demy's daughter Rosalie with his director wife Agnes Varda would have been 12 years of age at the time) and that perhaps would be loaded with the kind of subtext familiar to many European fairytales that reveal a darker undercurrent.

The other motivation for watching the film was that it happened to coincide with a one-to-one online themed drawing session with the French actress model Audrey Bastien and where I discovered that "Donkey Skin" was her favourite film and which was conducted before I had actually watched it for the first time.

"Peau d'âne" revolves around the controversial issue of incest though Demy himself would remain tight-lipped about the apparent theme of Perrault's fairytale, instead inviting the audience to see the story through the eyes of a child, where the absurdity and impossibility of a daughter marrying her own father becomes the raison d'être for the plot, minus the horror and revulsion that adults might feel at the thought. Besides this, children tend to filter out such complex aspects of films or stories and tend to focus on the magical and absurdist elements and Demy manages to pull off a clever trick of making a film that is appealing to both children and adults.

Jean Marais plays a king of a ruritanian kingdom whose beautiful wife - played by Deneuve - is on her deathbed and her last dying wish is for her husband to find a new wife of equal or greater beauty with whom he can rule his kingdom and to more importantly, produce a male heir.

His courtiers arrange for him to view various prospective partners (via their portraits) but none of them meet with his approval. A last portrait is of an exceptional beauty and when the King demands to know who she is, he is directed toward his own daughter, also played by Deneuve.

His courtiers insist that marriage to his daughter is the only option in order to comply with his late wife's wishes and this is sanctioned by the head of the church in order to produce a male heir and so the king willingly complies.

His daughter however is horrified at the thought and demands that her father comply with a specific wish before she allows the marriage to take place, which is to be given the skin of a magic donkey in the King's possession that is the source of his kingdom's wealth since it produces gold coins and gems on demand instead of milk.

In a quandary since he is at the mercy of his advisors, he agrees to her wish and on obtaining the skin she escapes from the palace to live a life of anonymity in the forest in a tumbledown shack whilst raising pigs. To the townspeople, who do not recognize her, she is someone to be avoided and the putrid donkey skin makes her suitably repellent to anyone curious enough to find out.

The princess seeks the counsel of a fairy, played by Delphine Seyrig, who advises her that the union with her father is unnatural and that she should find someone else to marry as soon as possible to avoid such a terrible fate.

Whilst out hunting, a prince from a nearby kingdom - played by Deneuve's co-star from "Les Demoiselles", Jacques Perrin - encounters the disguised princess and falls in love with her. On returning to his palace and feeling unwell he demands that she bake him a cake to make him better, in which she secretes a ring.

When he discovers the ring he announces that he will only marry the woman whose finger fits and so prospective candidates from the surrounding kingdoms are drafted in to try it for size, all in vain until "Donkey Skin" is brought in at the last minute.

A marriage is arranged between the Prince and Princess and at the sumptuous ceremony a helicopter (!) arrives with the King and the fairy who promptly announce that they are to marry and the film ends with the classic happy ever after of fairy tales.

"Donkey Skin" clearly has a very layered story - as layered as the many elaborate costumes that Deneuve wears in the film - and it is possible to discern symbols familiar to a psychologist. The skin of the magic donkey may represent the power and source of wealth of the father figure in the king and by wearing it the princess both robs the father of his power and authority and deliberately defiles herself in the process to avoid his unhealthy attentions, but that's just my reading of it and I'm not a psychologist.

It's easy to see how children would respond to the whimsical details and overlook the more troubling aspects of the story - a scene where Deneuve makes a cake whilst singing a song is pure Disney and the lavish production and costume design and overall look of the film suggests a colourful illustrated picture book without any attempt at realism, and Demy's inclusion of a helicopter at the end just adds to the playful approach that he adopts to spin his tale.

If nothing else "Peau d'âne" / "Donkey Skin" underlines Jacques Demy's intention of tackling complex and controversial themes within the frameworks of either the musical, or in this case, the fairytale - for example, in "Model Shop" the environs of Santa Monica in the 1960's filmed in a documentary style form a distracting wrapper to the darker themes that he explores in the film - and it evolved into a recurrent motif in his later films.

Additionally, once again, the musical score is provided by his other long-time collaborator, Michel Legrand, though it is perhaps less memorable than his scores for Demy's earlier signature films such as "Umbrellas" and "Les Demoiselles".

"Peau d'âne", Dir: Jacques Demy, 1970

Criterion Channel.


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