..

DONKEY SKIN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Delphine Seyrig
Director: Jacques Demy
Audio: French 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, 16:9 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Koch Lorber
Features: The Illustrated Peau D'
ne, Peau D'ne and the Thinkers, Peau D'ne and the Children, photo gallery, excerpt from The World of Jacques Demy, trailers, interview
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: May 10, 2005

"The fairytale princesses, have they all disappeared?"

Film ****

Once upon a time, there was a good king in a magical land far away.  He was well-loved by all the people and lived in an enchanted castle surrounded by servants of blue and horses of azure.  The king was a wealthy man, and he owned many valuable treasures.  However, none was more cherished than the king's prized donkey.  This was no ordinary creature but one able to transform plain hay into diamonds and gemstones of the highest quality.  This donkey was the source of the king's vast wealth, and so the king was always careful to lavish great affections and love upon his magical donkey.

Now, this king also had a lovely queen.  Her smile was brighter than the sunlit skies, and her complexion was as pure and white as the creamiest milk.  Together, the king and queen had a daughter, a most beautiful child indeed.  Often, the princess would amuse her parents by singing ballads and playing on her harpsichord.  Naturally, her parents were very proud of their daughter.

Sadly, one day the queen fell ill, and neither the wisest scholars nor most learned doctors could save her.  As her final hour approached, the queen summoned the king, and they mourned together privately.  The king swore that he would never marry again, but the queen, being wise, knew that the kingdom needed a prince as an heir.  So, she made the king promise to re-marry.

"Swear by your love for me to marry again only when you have found a woman more beautiful than I," said the queen.  Soon afterwards, the queen was dead, and the king became very sad.  He did not know how he could ever fulfill his promise, for who in the entire kingdom was lovelier than his departed wife?  The king retreated away into his chamber and would not even see his own daughter, for she reminded him too much of her mother.

The years passed and the king remained in his solitude until one day, a procession of his solemn advisors came to him.  The kingdom must have an heir, they pleaded with him.  But the king rebuked that finding a new wife as lovely as the former queen would be impossible.  The advisors, however, were persistent, and finally the king relented.  Messengers were sent to the four corners of the realm and beyond to seek a suitable new hand in marriage.  Sadly, the messengers always returned with pictures of uncomely princesses and spinsters.  Certainly there was no one as fair as his beloved queen, thought the king, and he continued to despair until one advisor gave him a final portrait of one last princess.

Where had this princess been hidden, the king cried aloud, for she was indeed as fair as a summer breeze, with lips red as the rose and hair golden as the sun.  She is the princess your daughter, responded the advisor.  The king looked out the castle window to see his daughter far below in the courtyard.  She was playing on her harpsichord and singing, and truthfully, she appeared more radiant and fairer now than ever the king had remembered her.  Here at long last was one to fulfill his queen's dying wish, and so the king summoned the princess to his throne room.

Indeed, the princess had grown greatly in beauty.  She was lovelier now than even her mother!  So, the king read poems to the princess and praised her beauty.  He spoke of his admiration for her.  And then, he told her, "I love you, my daughter, and I want to marry you."

Now, the princess was much distressed by this strange news.  She was very devoted to the king, but how could she possibly marry him?  Not knowing how to respond, the princess decided to consult with her godmother, the Lilac Fairy.

This fairy godmother lived in the enchanted woods across the river and beyond the morning mists.  The princess took a boat across the river and searched the woods until at last she came upon the home of her fairy godmother.  The princess began to describe her dilemma, but the Lilac Fairy, being magical, already knew everything and knew how to help the princess.

"Fairies are always right," she comforted the princess.  She told the princess not to worry but to request from the king the gift of a dress the color of the wind.  Surely, the king could never find such a dress!  So, the princess returned to the castle and made this request of the king in the hopes of deterring him.  But the king was resourceful, and he had the kingdom's greatest tailors craft him a dress of this quality.  Indeed, the dress swirled with the energy of the clouds and the playful winds, and the princess liked it very much.

But, she still needed to dissuade the king, so she asked for another dress.  This time, the princess asked for a dress the color of the moon.  And again, the king's tailors produced a luminous wonder, filled with the mystery and serenity of the still night.  The princess thought the dress was very lovely, but she was not yet ready to give up.  She asked for a third dress, this time one the color of the sun.  Again, the king's tailors proved their peerless skills, producing a radiant and glowing dress so bright that it illuminated even the farthest corners of the darkest rooms.

By now, the princess had almost decided to yield to the king's persistence.  But the Lilac Fairy, watching everything from afar, materialized in the princess's bedchamber that evening with a final suggestion.  And in the morning, the princess made her final request. "I'd like the skin of that old donkey in your stables," she asked.

The king hesitated but only for a moment.  You will have your gift this evening, he replied, and he remained true to his word.  That evening, while the princess slept, the king entered her bedchamber and laid the skin of his precious donkey at the foot of her bed.  When the princess awoke, she cried when she saw the poor animal's skin, and she felt despair for what she had asked.

The Lilac Fairy, knowing what had transpired, magically appeared once more before the princess.  Run away, run away, she said, and wear the skin of this poor donkey so that no one may ever know your real identity.  To help the princess, the Lilac Fairy gave her a magical wand.  Go to the magical kingdom of crimson and burgundy, and there you will find a friendly witch in need of a maid, advised the Lilac Fairy.

So, that very evening, the princess sadly departed from her home.  She traveled to that faraway kingdom of ambrosia red servants and scarlet velveteen horses.  She took up life as a poor scullion upon the kindly witch's farm.  Every day, the princess would disguise herself with the donkey skin while doing her chores.  The children on the farm would laugh at her and mock this unkempt new maid, christening her "Donkey-Skin."  The men on the farm would avoid her because the pelt was very ugly and smelled very bad.  Little did any of them realize that beneath the pelt, Donkey-Skin was actually quite beautiful.  Every evening, she would remove the donkey skin and, with a wave from her magical wand, transform into a lovely princess adorned in a magical gown of unmatched quality.

One day, a wandering prince of the red kingdom happened across Donkey-Skin's cottage in the woods.  Curious, he peered into a small crack in the wall and was astounded to see not a disheveled serving girl but a breathtakingly beautiful young maiden.  He instantly fell in love, and riding away, was so overcome by his emotions that he became ill by the time of his arrival at the castle.

The king and queen of this kingdom were perplexed by their son's sudden malady and summoned their men of medicine for advice.  After tending to the sick prince, these wise men concluded that he was suffering from love sickness.  Upon hearing this, the prince himself announced that only a cake made by the hands of She-Who-Lives-in-the-Woods would restore his health.

So adamant was the prince about this that servants were dispatched quickly to learn of whom the prince spoke.  Only Donkey-Skin lives in the woods, came the reply from the rural peasants.  Well, Donkey-Skin was reputed to be quite ugly, so when the royal servants finally located her hut, they dared not enter.  Instead, they stood far beyond the hut after delivering their message and waited patiently while Donkey-Skin cooked.

Unbeknownst to the prince, Donkey-Skin had been very aware of the prince's inquisitive gaze when first he saw her.  So now, safely hidden inside her hut, she waved her wand and transformed into her true self.  Then, she happily baked a cake for the prince with the best magic that she could conjure.  As an extra surprise, she even hid a precious ring inside the cake for the prince to find.

The royal servants returned with this cake.  The prince, upon ingesting it, felt completely revived, but he was astonished to find inside the cake a ring of sparkling beauty.  Let she who can wear this ring be my new bride, he declared.

Now, the king and queen were overjoyed at this news, for they had begun secretly to wonder when their son would take a bride.  Quickly, messengers were dispatched throughout the kingdom, summoning to the court all available maidens, young or old, plain or pretty.  One by one, all these women paraded by the prince.  Each attempted to slip the prince's ring on her finger, but the ring was always either too small or too large.  Hundreds of maidens tried to wear the ring, but always the result was the same.  Finally, when the last maiden had left the court, the prince began to despair of ever finding the ring's proper owner.  Was there no one left in all of the kingdom?  Just one, replied the king's men, the ugly Donkey-Skin.

The king made ready to send for Donkey-Skin when lo and behold, she appeared under the alcoves of the castle.  Her pelt was indeed hideous, and the ladies and gentlemen of the court shrank away from her as she walked towards the prince, who gallantly offered her the ring to wear.  To everyone's surprise, the ring slipped perfectly upon Donkey-Skin's finger!  At that very instant, she dropped the skin of the magical donkey to reveal underneath a gorgeous gown the color and warmth of the sun.  Donkey-Skin was no mere maiden but a beautiful princess!

When the prince saw who Donkey-Skin really was, he was overjoyed and knew that he had at last found his bride.  Arrangements were made for a marriage, and even the princess's father was located and was notified of her recovery.  In the end, the nuptial ceremony lasted three months, with royalties and rulers from all the distant realms arriving to commemorate the joyous occasion.

And the father of the princess?  He happily blessed his daughter's marriage to the prince, for in her absence, he had recovered his senses.  Furthermore, he had finally found another to match his former queen's beauty, none other than the Lilac Fairy herself.  So, they too were married, and everyone lived happily ever after.

"The tale is perhaps difficult to believe but as long as there are children and mothers and grandmothers, it will be remembered."

The End

Video ***

Donkey-Skin is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen format.  The colors are bold and vivid, as befits any fairy tale film.  The picture quality is fairly decent, with only a few speckles or age spots here and there.  Overall, I've never seen the film look better.

Audio ***

Donkey-Skin arrives with an enhanced 5.1 surround sound audio track.  Audio is in French with optional English or Spanish subtitles.  Fans of French composer Michel Legrand, who had contributed to Jacques Demy's earlier musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, will be pleased to know that he has composed new songs for this film as well.  The songs are perhaps not as memorable as his earlier tunes but do fit in quite nicely with the overall magical mood of the film.

Features ***

Charles Perrault penned many fairy tales during his life, and Peau D'ne (Donkey Skin), written in verse in 1694, remains one of his more memorable stories.  The 1970 film adaptation of the story, by French director Jacques Demy, remains quite faithful to the Perrault narrative with its light and darker elements.  Starring the elegant Catherine Deneuve as the princess and Jean Marais (of La belle et la bte) as the king, this film is an instant classic.  Readers of fairy tales will no doubt recognize many similarities between Donkey Skin and the more familiar Cinderella tale.

The bonus features on this disc are predominately in French, although English subtitles are available.  While these features are brief in length, many of them are definitely worth seeing.  First is an interview (4 min.) with Mag Bodard, producer of the film.  She discusses her admiration for Donkey Skin and her favorite scenes from the film.

The Illustrated Peau D'ne (11 min.) briefly describes Perrault's original verse version of the Donkey Skin tale and the subsequent prose version which is generally considered the basis for later renditions of the tale.  Numerous illustrations from over the centuries are shown in this featurette, which naturally includes a brief synopsis of Donkey Skin as well.  Most of these illustrations are quite beautiful to behold and generally demonstrate the universal popularity of the story.  Accompanying the narrative are sound bites from the film, audio effects, and period music.  This featurette is one of the highlights on this disc.

While the film will appeal vastly to children, Demy honors the original nature of Perrault's tale by not sugar-coating its darker aspects.  Anyone who has suffered through high school advanced placement English courses will realize that fairy tales are often parables for deeper psychosexual themes.  Peau D'ne and the Thinkers (17 min.) gathers together a panel of psychoanalysts and literature professors to offer their interpretations on the Donkey Skin tale.  These scholars start by expressing their admiration for the film and its magical atmosphere before delving into the base story's more hidden meaning.  This is, after all, a fairy tale that deals with issues of incest, voyeurism, and the sexual awakening of youth on the cusp of maturity and early adulthood.  Archetypal characters in the story include an omnipotent father, a submissive daughter, and even a Supernatural Aid character (the Lilac Fairy) who propels the heroine deeper along her psychological and physical journey, a variation upon the "hero cycle."  The scholars also analyze the symbolism of the donkey skin worn by the princess.  Granted, some of these revelations will spin the heads of the more innocent or nave viewers among us.  If you prefer not to have your illusions of innocence shattered, then avoid this otherwise excellent featurette.  Never fear - children will never pick up anyway on the collusion of these themes unless they are exceedingly precocious.

Children will likely prefer Peau D'ne and the Children (8 min.).  In this featurette, French children from l'cole Victor Hugo de Cretil and le centre ar d'Issy-les-Moulineaux watch Donkey Skin and afterwards offer their joyous reactions to the film.  In the charming manner of unspoiled youth, they enthusiastically recount the entire magical tale of Donkey Skin from a child's fresh perspective.

Next, there is a photo montage by Claire Bretecher (3 min.) which show various promotional artwork and comic illustrations for Donkey Skin.  Interspersed between the illustrations are stills from the film itself.

A short excerpt from Agnes Varda's The World of Jacques Demy (8 min.) also touches upon themes in the film, albeit from a less intellectual stance.  Varda was Demy's wife and has been a strong proponent in the restoration of Demy's best-known films, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Demy himself appears in archival footage to discuss the film.  Also included in this excerpt are film clips and behind-the-scenes footage from the production.  Unfortunately, the excerpt does end rather abruptly.

Lastly, selections from the Koch Lorber catalog are viewable via trailers for Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita, The Five Obstructions, Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Donkey Skin, The Girl from Paris, 301/302, The Wooden Man's Bride, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, and Sister My Sister.  DVD credits and a web-link are also provided.

Summary:

Donkey-Skin is the third of Demy's musicals to feature international star Catherine Deneuve.  A visually delightful fantasy, Donkey-Skin is an enchanted fairy tale in the spirits of the classic La belle et la bte and Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.  Highly recommended!

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com