Finding a director you love can feel like quite the task. Whether it be the countless sea of film school graduates that dream of becoming Christopher Nolan, to the prior “old guard” that repeat their work over and over, the massive majority of filmmakers tend to stick to their comforts rather than genuinely reinventing the wheel. But when you do discover a director that legitimately possesses their unique view, it feels like you’re Indiana Jones, uncovering the greatest of treasures.
In the case of this cinephile, that’s how I felt when I discovered the work of Jacques Demy – a filmmaker known for his collection of American-inspired movie musicals, bold techniques, and creative use of a loud and unconventional color palette. Though most of his top-tier work came out in the 1960s, every film of his feels fresh, imaginative, and captivating – as if made today. And though many of his films are worth discussing, the one I wish to bring to your attention is Peau d’âne, aka Donkey Skin.
Adapted from the much less-beloved fairy tale, Donkey Skin tells the story of a king (played by Jean Marais) who has just become a widower. His wife, the Queen, pressured her husband (on her deathbed) that he must marry someone more beautiful than her. And in the hopes of keeping that promise after her passing, the King finds himself focusing on only one beautiful creature – his daughter. Of course, the Princess (Catherine Deneuve) is too young to realize how wrong it is for a daughter to marry her father, and per the instructions of the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig), goes on a fantastical journey of disguise and romance to hide away from her father’s gaze.
From the very first frame, Demy transports viewers to a world of visual freedom. A fairy tale land that is utterly wild to general audiences, though familiar for lovers of vintage children’s illustrations. Every frame is an explosion of color, glitter, and unapologetic optimistic bliss. But like the rest of Demy’s filmography, the visual whimsy on display is juxtaposed with his characters’ melancholy nature. For though the cast of Donkey Skin might seem like the most cardboard cutout of fictional individuals, they all have a deep, complex layer underneath their sparkling surface – one that is a bit of skeptic sarcasm mixed with a sprinkle of childish delight.
Yet perhaps the most charming element of Donkey Skin is the hindsight that comes from watching it as a modern viewer, for this is a film that could have only been made at the most specific of times, especially when it comes to Demy’s career path. Before this, Demy had collaborated twice with the equally iconic composer, Michel Legrand. This partnership led to two similarly enchanting musical features, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort – both of which juxtaposed an expansive, colorful world with dramatic stories of love and loss. But both of those films relied on the nostalgia of classic Hollywood musicals. In contrast, Demy and Legrand’s Donkey Skin focuses on creating a different, much more risky homage – that of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
Having been made 24 years before Donkey Skin, Cocteau’s classic film was a groundbreaking creation in both storytelling and special effects. It established fairy tale cinema’s language, taking it to new and much grander heights than even Walt Disney’s 1937 adaptation of Snow White. And much like America had gained a sense of pride over Disney’s first feature film, France had done the same with Cocteau’s take on the story of transformation and romance. So I could imagine that when Demy decided to incorporate various nods to Beauty and the Beast in Donkey Skin, the venture might have been a tricky tightrope to walk in the eyes of French audiences.
But as time has passed, it’s easy to see Demy’s love for Cocteau’s most famous creation in every frame of Donkey Skin. From the casting of Jean Marais (Cocteau’s Beast) as the monstrous King to lovely tributes within both the costume design and enchanting editing techniques (initially utilized by Cocteau), there is no shortage to the homages to La Belle et La Bete within Demy’s final product. And as audiences old and new have seen both features, cinephiles have come to embrace Demy’s unique recognition of Cocteau’s incredible accomplishments.
Unfortunately, there is an element within Donkey Skin that keeps it from becoming as iconic as Cocteau’s fantastic creation – that being the source material. As mentioned before, incest plays quite a part in both the original fairytale and Demy’s film. And though audiences can see it in the most innocent of ways (via only conversation), this aspect of the story is what has often kept it (rightfully) from being embraced by most families.
Yet as a 30-yr-old woman seeing this film for the first time, I can’t help but feel it was never really intended for children. Sure, the origins of the film’s plot come from a fairy tale. Still, with Demy’s satirical yet whimsical sensibilities, Donkey Skin comes across as a movie that adults can only appreciate. Especially when many (including yours truly) may find themselves reading in-between the lines of the film’s unforgettable, yet very commentary-filled, images.
And if there is one character who embodies Demy’s adult judgments, along with the film’s mature themes, it is the Lilac Fairy. Not only does this classic starlet-inspired beauty arrive via a helicopter, but she also gives the most sound advice out of anyone else in the film. From telling the Princess that she must not marry her father (for obvious reasons), she stands out as a bold commentator within such a colorful world. And perhaps Demy wanted her to represent the adult audience members, who crave for someone to talk sense into these characters.
Regardless of its award elements, Donkey Skin is a film that is never going to leave my mind. It embodies so much of the visual aesthetics I crave daily, along with the magic and imagination I feel is often missing from modern cinema. And with films like this, plus his other movie musicals, Demy has stolen my directorial heart. For he’s telling the kind of fantasy stories that respect audiences, regardless of gender, while also exploring every possibility that a fantasy film can achieve. And as someone craving for fairytales to be adapted in some adult yet whimsical manner, Donkey Skin checked all of those boxes and more.
Donkey Skin is available via the Criterion Collection and Criterion Channel.