Considering the central conflict of the story involves a young woman fleeing the incestuous advances of her father, Donkey Skin is not the sort of fairy tale which you’ll see Disney adapting any time soon. French filmmaker Jacques Demy filmed the tale as a musical in 1970 with Catherine Deneuve and Jean Marais as the father/daughter and potential husband/wife. Though a hit when released, it has fallen by the wayside as of late, which is a shame. It may not be a perfect film, but it is quite interesting in how it both clasps fast to and subverts fairy tale conventions.
For those unaware of the original story, it starts with the death of a beautiful queen. Before passing away, she makes her husband the king (Jean Marais) swear to never remarry until he can find a woman more lovely than she. After burying his beloved wife, the king searches throughout the lands but all of the princesses are too homely, unpleasant, or stupid for his taste. Asking himself “where have all the fairy tale princesses gone,” the king is ready to give up when one of his desperate advisors has him observe one more potential bride. She is not only more beautiful than the deceased queen, she is also much more clever and charming. The king is smitten and wants the young lady right away.
The catch: she’s his daughter, played by the radiant Catherine Deneuve.
This fact does not deter the king, who proceeds with proposing to his own child. The girl is horrified, but he swears to make her his, no matter what. Confused by the nature of her formerly distant father’s affections, the princess rushes to her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig) for advice. The fairy godmother advises her against the marriage, not due to any moral reason, but because marrying one’s parent simply isn’t done by proper civilized people! Plus, she has eyes for the king herself. When her suggestions of giving the king impossible demands to fulfill fail to be impossible, she has the princess request that the kingdom’s prize donkey, which magically excretes gold, be slaughtered and skinned before she agrees to marry the king. Once the reluctant monarch complies, her fairy godmother smothers the princess’s delicate face with ashes and has her dress in the skin before running off to live in the woods and earn her keep as a despised scullery maid in a neighboring kingdom. Of course, a handsome prince (Jacques Perrin) comes her way and the princess is restored to her true position and reconciliation with her father… though Demy’s version leaves the audience wondering if the princess is going to be content with a traditional happily ever after.
Demy’s Donkey Skin is a strange movie, a kind of hybrid of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, no surprise considering these two films were cited as inspirations. Donkey Skin can easily be read as a New Wave homage to the Cocteau film with its casting of Jean Marais as the king; he wears an imposing costume much like the Beast’s and acts as an object of transgressive desire for the princess, much like the Beast did for Belle. It also apes the sequence where Belle first enters the enchanted castle, running through the corridors in slow-motion: here, the princess runs in slow-mo through her forest exile. Of course, the later film feels much lighter than its spiritual ancestor, with a swinging soundtrack and buoyant musical numbers. The fact that this is a color film also makes Donkey Skin frothier. The color palette is reminiscent of watercolor paint, harkening back to the similar look of Disney’s Snow White.
Though Cocteau and Disney are major influences on Donkey Skin, Deneuve’s princess is a different beast from the heroines of either Beauty and the Beast or Snow White. She is less austere and remote than Josette Day’s Belle, nor is she as chipper and optimistic as Adriana Caselotti’s soprano-voiced Snow White. Girlish and radiant in her billowing gowns, Deneuve is the true image of a fairy tale heroine, undergoing ridicule and poverty as she struggles to her reward. But as Anne E. Duggan points out in her essay for the film’s Criterion Collection release, Deneuve’s princess has a great deal more agency than her literary counterpart, subverting Mulvey’s male gaze by looking upon the prince with desire voyeuristically.
On the whole, Donkey Skin tells the story without any major revisions, but this adaptation also manages to be subversive in its own understated way. The princess is not entirely put off by the idea of marrying (and thereby sharing a bed with) her father. The fairy godmother is not a benevolent figure; she views the younger princess as a rival and takes an almost sadistic delight in mussing her beauty up before sending her off into hiding, which makes her seem like a cross between fairy helper and wicked stepmother. And the ending is not at all unambiguously joyful; once she learns her fairy godmother has wed the king, the princess looks sullen, suddenly dissatisfied (the fairy whispers, “Do try to look happy, dear.”). Perhaps a lifetime married to the boyish prince is too conventional for her? His boyish earnestness does seem sexually pallid when compared to the king’s towering (ie phallic) figure.
A decent number of viewers are unimpressed with Donkey Skin nowadays, finding it rather weak. It isn’t a stone cold masterpiece like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and not having viewed much of Demy’s oeuvre, I cannot say how it ranks in his body of work (considering the only other film of his I’ve seen is Lady Oscar, Donkey Skin is the best for me as of yet). But as far as fairy tale cinema goes, it ranks among my personal favorites. Combined with the fabulous costumes and lovely Michel Legrand score, its peculiar blend of surrealism, satire, and sincerity hits my cinematic sweet spot.