Donkey Skin (1970)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Among the masses, Charles Perrault’s name has never quite had the recognition of the Brothers Grimm. Perrault was a French author during the 17th century who is most well known for founding the literary genre of the fairy tale. His fairy tales, of course, were derived from regional folktales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Jacques Demy grew up hearing and reading the stories Perrault had collected centuries earlier. Since the early 1960s, Demy had been trying to work out a script to adapt one of the fairy tales. There isn’t a director I can think of that would be more suited for this type of film, Demy’s commitment to style while staying true to honest storytelling is something that makes a fairy tale pop off the page.
The King (Jean Marais) is heartbroken when his queen (Catherine Deneuve) dies. He promises her he will only remarry if it is a woman as beautiful as her. His advisors tell the King he needs to produce a male heir as his only child is The Princess (also Catherine Deneuve). The King realizes the only woman as beautiful as his wife is…his daughter. The Princess is certainly not okay with this and gets some winning advice from her godmother, The Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig). The Princess demands a series of increasingly more challenging tasks ending with having the King’s prized jewel excreting donkey being skinned. The Princess dons the skin and escapes the castle. From there, she is given the nickname Donkey Skin by villagers in a neighboring kingdom and secures a job as a pig keeper. Despite living as a pauper, she catches the eye of The Prince (Jacques Perrin), who decides to pursue her while looking mad to his courtiers.
You can easily argue that Demy’s entire filmography was profoundly inspired by fairy tales, adding his bittersweet twist into the narrative. Also, the director’s mind was surely Jean Cocteau’s Belle et Bete, a French adaptation of Beauty & The Beast, one of the greatest French films of all time and heavily inspired Disney’s 1990s adaptation. In fact, Jean Marais, who plays The King in Donkey Skin, was Cocteau’s lover. Marias also played The Beast in that older film and gets to play another, though very different villain in this picture. Demy also incorporates the idea of living statues from Cocteau’s film into this one, with real people covered in pain and acting as these sculptures.
There is a vital playfulness at work in Donkey Skin, and Demy clearly knows how the incest plot elements would be received. There had been a well-known stage production of Donkey Skin decades earlier that had wholly removed the desires of the King for his own daughter, so including this piece was undoubtedly intentional by the director. In that stage play, the donning of the donkey’s skin is imposed upon the Princess, but Demy restores it as part of the Princess taking control of the situation. He also lets the Princess desire, having her use magic to get a better look at the Prince as he approaches her cottage.
Demy goes even further by implying that the Lilac Fairy is attracted to the King and so her reasons for helping the Princess have a tinge of the selfish. She explains to the Princess that she doesn’t oppose the marriage for moral reasons but rather for the sake of “culture” and “legislature.” There’s some interesting hinting from Demy’s script that the film is about questioning why certain taboos are considered such. He believes that taboo is determined culturally so that what is seen as immoral in one locale might be quite the opposite in another. That doesn’t mean Demy endorses the King’s desire to marry his own daughter; he is just interested in determining how morals are created. We see this in the way a person’s economic class position implies good or bad morality to them. The King is “morally good” because he is rich and has many jewels. Donkey Skin is “morally bad” because she is poor and lives in filth.
In the same way, Stephen Sondheim used fairy tales to question how we judge good and evil in Into the Woods, Demy was doing something very similar here. In fact, Demy’s entire body of films that we watched for this series are variations on the same theme. How do we attain “happily ever after?” Demy’s judgment is that we can never have that, at least not permanently. Lola gets a fairy tale ending at her self-titled movie’s conclusion, yet when we revisit her in Model Shop, that turns out to be temporary, and now she’s worse off than ever. Is it possible that what we desire will never leave us with the satisfaction we imagine it will deliver? Our happiness can’t be contingent on being with or having another person. True satisfying happiness comes from something profoundly deeper; while material circumstances can give momentary joy, you need to search for something greater within yourself to have true contentment.