Donkey Skin (1970, Jacques Demy)

I think most Jacques Demy studies begin with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and end with The Young Girls of Rochefort, pausing to mention that he died young and was married to Agnes Varda. I enjoyed those two so much that I figured his other films couldn’t be that bad, so I checked this out since the video store didn’t have Lola. Not only is it not-bad, but I challenge anybody to find anything wrong with it.

Catherine Deneuve (the same year as Tristana) plays a young princess. A few months after her mother passes away, the king (Jean Marais, not looking too different 25 years after his other fairy-tale film, Beauty and the Beast), with no other attractive princesses in the land, decides to marry Catherine.

Funeral for a queen:

Catherine, a sheltered princess who spends her days with parrots and blue-painted dwarfs sees nothing wrong with this – after all, she loves her father. Fortunately, her fairy godmother Delphine Seyrig (the year after Mr. Freedom, and looking much classier) knows it’s a problem so gives Catherine a series of costume-design challenges to pose to her father to delay the wedding. When he passes them all, making her dresses the color of the sky, the moon and the sun, she asks for a dress made from the skin of the prize donkey which shits gold and jewels. Seems like a cruel slap at the kingdom, but he does it, and she flees for the country wearing the freshly-killed donkey.


Doing small-town drudge work in public, but secretly sleeping comfortably in her shack with some magical fairy help, Cath attracts the attention of Prince Charming (Jacques Perrin, who starred in Z after playing the military poet who is driving away in the final shot of Rochefort). He meets her, loses her, then does the Cinderella thing with all the girls in the land, only instead of a slipper it’s a ring that fits only her hand, and announces they are to be married.


Just then, a helicopter (!) drops in carrying the king, who is going to marry the fairy godmother – a hilarious ending to a story that started pretty dark (death, incest, donkey-killing).


Demy (in homage to Cocteau?) uses slow motion and reverse effects as cheap movie magic to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere. Hmmm, and painted people hiding in the walls and Cocteau’s name in the credits and his leading man in the cast – I guess he was an influence after all.


Lovely music by Michel Legrand and lovely cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, both returning from The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Dialogue that prefigures the helicopter:
CD: “Can a spell wear out like a dress?”
fairy godmother: “No, but it can weaken like a battery.”
“A battery? What is that?
“Nothing – I’m getting old!”
“But fairies don’t get old.”
“You’re right. I had forgotten.”

Also: birds galore… a giant stuffed white cat as a king’s throne… iris-fades to solid colors a la Le Bonheur… force fields… talking flowers… horses painted red… pretty much a must-see movie.


Katy, Jan 2013: “I mostly liked it.”