The films of Jacques Demy have nothing to do with reality; they take adolescent romantic dreams and utterly vindicate them. His first four films (Lola, Bay of Angels, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Young Girls of Rochefort) are all masterpieces. After stumbling a bit with his fifth film, Model Shop, Demy regained his footing with 1970’s Donkey Skin, a cool, shimmering version of a classic French fairy tale by Cinderella author Charles Perrault. It features the crème de la crème of French actors (Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, Jean Marais, Micheline Presle, and Jacques Perrin) and a score by Demy’s frequent collaborator Michel Legrand. For the past few years, Demy’s wife, Agnès Varda, has been meticulously restoring Demy’s films and then premiering them at Film Forum in New York. She skipped the problematic Model Shop, but hopefully she has plans for Demy’s seventh film, The Pied Piper, and Une Chambre en Ville, which is supposedly the best of his late movies.
Donkey Skin begins with the sweet words, “Once upon a time,” but the narrator’s voice sounds rather detached, almost creepy. Demy focuses intensively on different shades of blue throughout; many in the film’s fairy tale kingdom have blue faces, including some dwarves who look like early oompa loompas. The King (Marais) is distraught when his wife (played by Deneuve in a brown wig) dies. In his grief, he turns to his daughter (Deneuve at her blondest) and insists on marrying her, at which point everyone watching should get out their Penguin Freud. Aghast, the Princess is counseled by the Lilac Fairy (Seyrig, wearing her Daughters of Darkness blond marcel weave) to stall her father by asking for lots of specific gowns, then by asking for the skin of his magic donkey, who shits gold and keeps the kingdom in funds. To her horror, he obliges, and the Princess is forced to take refuge as a scullion in the provinces. But a handsome prince in red (Perrin) comes to her rescue, eventually.
Legrand’s score is not up to his usual standard for Demy, and there isn’t enough of it. But the actors and Demy’s color scheme, which includes blue and green iris shots, are striking enough to hide some of the film’s weaknesses. Demy’s films set in ordinary French seaside towns emphasize the magic of movies and music to romanticize the most provincial locales. In Donkey Skin, he takes a romantic fairy tale and brings it down to earth with prosaic details (modern personal foibles, a late-arriving helicopter). When the old crone the Princess works for spits out toads, it seems the most natural thing in the world, as does the blue and yellow parrot that continually squawks Legrand’s anxious love theme.
There’s plenty of disguised sex in Donkey Skin. Perrin’s prince is addressed by a very vaginal pink rose, the center of which talks at him with a woman’s mouth and looks at him with a woman’s eyes. When he’s trying to find the Princess, he has all the maidens in the kingdom come try on a ring, and the phallic implications are clear. Perrin and Deneuve, who were the perfect blond couple always missing each other in Rochefort, are pampered and infantile here, but in a way that gives pampered infantilism its due. These spoiled kids are used to indulging themselves; in one wonderful sequence, Perrin does backward somersaults up a hill while Deneuve rolls herself up. Once on top, they stuff themselves with pastries and sing narcissistically of their immortal love. The whole film seems to take place in a refrigerated Disney movie filled with elaborate and cold French desserts and sexual/intellectual French subtexts.
Varda and her crew have done their usual exemplary job on the image. The video version of Donkey Skin was very murky, which in some ways made the story more disturbing than it actually is. They have cleaned up the colors so that the blues and reds stand out as sharply as they are supposed to, and the sound is excellent.
Included here are the original theatrical trailer, and an excerpt from Varda's film The World of Jacques Demy, which pertains to Donkey Skin. There's also a brief interview with producer Mag Bodard, a deep-dish feature with some French intellectuals who argue about the story, a charming one with children who recount the tale in their own words, and a feature about the many illustrations for Perrault's text that shows how closely Demy kept his visuals to the colors and imagery of these old drawings.
Essential for admirers of Jacques Demy, and that should be everybody.