Peau D’âne (Donkey Skin, 1970, France 90 mins)

Source: CAC Prod. Co: Mag Bodard, Marianne Dir, Scr: Jacques Demy from Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Phot: Ghislain Cloquet Mus: Michel Legrand

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jacques Perrin, Delpine Seyrig, Jean Marais, Micheline Presle

Ghislain Cloquet selected filmography:

Les Statues Meurent Aussi 1953; Night and Fog, Toute la Mémoire du Monde 1956; Le Trou 1960; Le Feu Follet 1963; Mickey One 1965; Au Hasard Balthazar 1966; Mouchette, Les Demoiselles de Rocheforte 1967; Benjamin 1968; Une Femme Douce 1969; Peau D’âne 1979; Love and Death, Tess 1979; Four Friends 1981.

What is so striking about Peau D’âne is the way it very subtly probes and unnerves you. In the charming fairytale world that Demy creates lies a peculiar and fine tension, a tension that derives from his matter-of-fact placement of melancholic, sickly and ironic qualities into an idyllic, fairytale existence. These qualities make the “saccharine” fairytale – in all its sweetness, innocence and timelessness – a much more sour and bizarre experience than it otherwise would have been. As in his better-known film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Demy examines characters that are very familiar or “everyday” in order to reveal the slight tensions and melancholic strains that lie just beneath the seemingly idyllic surface.

Peau D’âne is based on a fairytale by 17th century author Charles Perrault, and Demy creates this fairytale world with immaculate detail and glowing charm. The gesture of bracketing the story with the opening and closing of a book accompanied by a narrator emphasises the act of storytelling and marks the film’s reality off as timeless and far removed. In fact, throughout the film, there are no clues for the viewer to ascertain exactly when and where the story takes place. It all seems rather ethereal and ahistorical. Demy creates this world in highly mythological terms in order to draw clearer thematic contrasts in the film that complicate common assumptions about the “fairytale” format.

In a beautiful castle, there live the King (Jean Marais), the Queen (Catherine Deneuve) and their daughter (also played by Catherine Deneuve). One day, the Queen is struck with an illness and dies. On her deathbed, she makes the King promise to re-marry another woman only if the woman is more beautiful than she is. Pressured by his Council to remarry, the King embarks on a quest for such a woman, only to find that the one who fits this description is his daughter. And so, the King proposes to his daughter. Horrified and confused, the daughter seeks advise from her godmother, the “lilac fairy” (Delphine Seyrig), who helps her delay the marriage and eventually flee her father’s castle. Hidden under the disguise of a donkey skin, the daughter takes refugee in a village where she performs the most debased work and is ridiculed by the other workers. As with Cinderella, though, a handsome and caring Prince (Jacques Perrin) sees her briefly, becomes immediately madly in love with her and does not rest until he sees her again. He eventually finds her and they live happily ever after.

There is a string of oddities and peculiarities that weave their way through this idealised world that instantly strike and unsettle the viewer. They are ironical moments that gesture to an act of “turning over” this pretty world to examine and reveal its very odd, monstrous and, even, non-life undercurrents. Non-life rather than simply death, because Demy is interested in revealing those human feelings and desires that do not yield promise, hope, or birth (attributes of “life”) but that are instantly melancholic and hopeless or that transgress normal limits to appear debased, decayed and devoid.

Demy creates a surreal and heightened reality – estranged from any particular time or place and existing solely in a fairytale/fantasy space – through an extremely precise, detailed and playful attention to elements of set design, costume and colour. For example, the King’s castle is dominated by the colour of royal blue; so there are the strange blue-faced servants and horses that serve the family, the costumes, the castle and other general objects of the mise en scène. In direct contrast, the Prince is associated with the colour red; his costumes, his room are washed with variations of this colour.

Such detailed precision results in a heightened, surreal and artificial fairytale world. It creates a further sense of irony and discomfort – the costumes appear too lavish; the horrible village woman literally spits frogs. As critic Richard Combs commented in his review of the film, and, in particular, in relation to Demy’s extraordinary attention and precision in creating this world:

But one gradually senses that the details grace a conception that never quite comes to life, as if Demy were describing the exquisite colouring of an insect already dried and mounted to try to give an idea of its beauty in motion. (1)

This sense of the mise en scène never quite ‘coming to life’ is a haunting quality of this film but one intimately related to its theme of non-life.

Further moments of irony that jolt the idyllic fairytale world are the donkey that “produces” gold coins and, of course, the King’s “unwholesome” desire to marry his daughter. The King’s intention to marry his daughter immediately sends this fairytale down a dark and ironic path and amounts to the monstrous gesture of the Family turning in upon itself. The act of love and desire signifies here a staleness, sickness and non-life. Although the daughter is at first horrified, she is also confused and doesn’t want to disobey or hurt her father whom she loves. The Princess’ godmother must explain to her that there are different kinds of love and that children do not marry their parents. Played superbly by Delphine Seyrig, the “lilac fairy” helps the daughter by telling her to make various requests of her father: a dress the colour of the weather, the moon, the sun and finally the donkey skin.

Peau D’âne is permeated with a melancholic and ironic tone. The theme music, scored by Michel Legrand, is haunting and lamenting. And the lyrics to the song, sung by the Princess and the Prince at various times throughout the film, speak of love as mad, crazy and unwise. While the Princess sings of love as unwise, her father is in the castle gazing upon her and contemplating their marriage. Later on, the Prince, while wandering alone in the forest after departing a gay gathering of his entourage, sings:

Love hides within the heart like a thief;
And secretly plans its downfall;
Like a worm inside a cherry recalling happy days.

This theme of love as inextricably tied to despair and melancholy is central to the film. The sense that feelings of love and melancholy are inextricable is strongest toward the end of the film during the scene where the ghosts of the Prince and the Princess unite and declare to each other their unbound love. The strength of their love transgresses normal space-time co-ordinates, yet they can only be together in ghost-form, which only emphasises their incompleteness in the real world. And it is in the contrast between a love that can only exist on a phantom plane – ephemeral and unsubstantial – with a love that is finally realised in concrete reality that makes the couple’s union and their happiness euphoric and magical.

The fairy godmother leads Catherine to her destiny. Through this figure, Demy explores the inevitability of the fairytale – the logic that the unhappy daughter will be saved by the Prince with whom she will live happily ever after. Not only the fairy godmother, but also objects of nature, such as flowers and plants, become agents of fairytale inevitability: they anthropomorphise, communicating and assisting the lovers to their destiny. The “lilac fairy” – a delightfully surreal character – already knows the future; as she says reassuringly to Catherine, “it’s all planned”. As one who has a direct line to the future, she presents the King with books written by “poets of the future” (who ironically include filmmaker/poet Jean Cocteau). Demy jokingly plays on this idea of fate by pointing out that the godmother, and not the Princess, knows what a “battery” is and having the godmother arrive at the wedding celebration, in splendid fashion, in a helicopter – a violent breach of the story’s time continuum.

The irony that Demy is constantly pointing to is superbly expressed in the image of Catherine Deneuve disguised under a donkey skin. In the physical proximity between the beautiful and innocent daughter and the bloody, freshly slaughtered animal’s skin, there emerges the idea of the very fine line between monstrosity and beauty (or what is socially regarded as so). Demy creates a seemingly idyllic world – through the instantly recognisable and universal genre of the fairytale – in order to uncover the fine line between monstrosity and normality that it conceals and the perversities that complicate the narrative goal of a fullness and completeness of life. Such perversities include the King’s desire for his daughter, the donkey skin that Catherine hides under and the lowly, servile position she occupies in the village. Ultimately, however, the narrative tension is resolved and the Princess is united with her Prince. Yet, the elements of perversity and abjection that the narrative has acknowledged throughout the film do not instantly disappear, but exist to complicate the happy ending.

Demy opts for the musical fairytale not only because it offers a perfect counterpoint to life’s perversities and oddities but also because it is a mainstream form. Narratively structured on the model of a classic fairytale, Peau D’âne offers a “happy ending” that is truly magical and entertaining. At the final moment where the Prince and Princess come together – where the couple is united and life is reaffirmed – the film (and the viewer) become enveloped in a state of euphoria, ecstasy and rapture. The Prince and Princess sing to each other: “what to do with all this happiness and joy?” Through the familiarity of the fairytale, Demy successfully presents true happiness and bliss as fragile and precious treasures.

In his surreal and ironic take on everyday assumptions and ideals, Demy takes part in a tradition of cinema pioneered by Luis Buñuel. And his interest in fantasy and fairytale references the work of Jean Cocteau, in particular, Beauty and the Beast (1946).

Demy is well known for his first film Lola made in 1960, which is regarded as his masterpiece. His other well known films include The Bay of the Angels (1962), Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Model Shop (1969) and Une Chambre a Ville (1982). In a review of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jonathan Rosenbaum points out that Demy’s films are “thematically and formally preoccupied with quotidian rituals” and that their distinctively “idealized and ironic, bitterly tragic and stringently comic” qualities may very well be related to Demy’s own personal history as a gay man raised within a middle class, very conventional family (2). As a result, although his knowledge of the world, values and structures of feeling were originally shaped according to “normal” and “mainstream” terms, his vantage point was instantly that of an “outsider” – a tension that his films reflect.

Endnotes

  1. Richard Combs, “Peau D’âne”, Monthly Film Bulletin, v.39 n.466 November 1972, p.239.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Songs in the Key of Everyday Life”, Chicago Reader – on film, uploaded 17 May 1996.

About The Author

Fiona Villella is a freelance writer and former editor of Senses of Cinema.