[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Jacques Demy’s best films—Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort—wave the silk scarf of an absurd romanticism so expertly over the abrasive realities of The World We Live In—unwanted pregnancies, painful, irrational separations, grotesquely violent death—that our appreciation of both textures is deeply enhanced in the delirious cinematic process. Donkey Skin, his 1970 retelling of the Perreault fairy tale, almost entirely lacks this sense of imaginative play and stylistic chance-taking. As such, it makes for a pre-afternoon-nap children’s story more elaborately visualized than most, but serves little other purpose.
Casting Jean Marais as the monarch of a blue kingdom who suddenly conceives a desire to marry his daughter (Deneuve) may titillate French-film cinéastes who recall Marais’s numerous tours of duty in Cocteau films of decades ago, but it’s a far cry from the resonance of Elina Labourdette flaunting her Dames du Bois du Boulogne credentials in Lola or Danielle Darrieux’s evocation of various Ophulsian rondes in Rochefort. Although Demy is working with Ghislain Cloquet, cinematographer on the lyrically fluid Rochefort, their compositions are distressingly static here; and Michel Legrand’s musical interludes, so suggestively integral to the life process in Rochefort and even The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, not only arise perfunctorily here but yield little satisfaction as musical moments in themselves.
Only Delphine Seyrig provides significant relief from the tedium, notably as a fairy godmother with a very modern consciousness (and bag of tricks). Very prettily distressed at Marais’s “unnatural” designs, she sends the princess off on her flight disguised in, and as, Peau d’âne, only to reappear at the finale as the king’s new intended, her rival safely disposed of in the company of an innocuous Prince Charming (Perrin). It’s a neat joke but it almost slips past unnoticed, so little has anything mattered—and fairy tale or not, something must matter eventually. One extraordinary special effect: a dress for the princess “the color of perfect weather”—a greenish-grey robe eerily swept by actual, moving summer clouds even as the princess strolls amid a screenful of other personae and props.
DONKEY SKIN (Peau d’âne)
Screenplay and direction: Jacques Demy. Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet. Costumes: Pace and Gitt Magrini. Music: Michel Legrand. Production: Mag Bodard.
The Players: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Delphine Seyrig, Jacques Perrin, Micheline Presle, Fernand Ledoux.
Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson