Directed by: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Jacques Perrin
Studio: Koch Lorber Films KLF-DV-3047
Video: Enhanced for 16:90 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DD 2.0, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Original theatrical trailer, Interview with Mag Bodard, The Illustrated Peau d’Âne, Peau d’Âne and the Thinkers, Pau d’Âne and the Children, Photo montage by Claire Bretecher, Excerpt from Agnes Varda’s The World of Jacques Demy
Length: 89 minutes
If you’re a fan of Demy’s earlier musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort – as I am – don’t expect this rather odd duck of a film to be more of the same. In my opinion it is a stretch to call it a musical because it has so few tunes in it, but they are great ones – by the master at this sort of thing, Michel Legrand. In fact it’s surprising the main theme that keeps reprising (lip-synced by Deneuve) isn’t as popular as The Windmills of Your Mind.
Some of the extras explain that Peau d’Âne is a fairy tale originally written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, who also wrote Cinderella. It is one of the favorite fairy tales with which all French children are familiar. Since we are familiar with the dark places in Grimm’s fairy tales, English-speakers should be accepting of the less-than-paletable in Peau d’Âne – at least no humans get killed or eaten. Jean Marais – who was the beast in Cocteau’s classic Beauty and the Beast – here plays the king. His lovely (also played by Deneuve) queen’s dying wish is that he marry a woman more beautiful than she is. After a thorough search (a la Cinderella) he finds that the only woman more beautiful is his beautiful daughter. Both the Princess and her Fairy godmother think the king is a beast for insisting on marrying the girl.
A plan is devised by the Lilac Fairy to keep putting off the marriage by the Princess requesting more and more impossible gowns. After all those possibilities are exhausted and the impossible gowns get made at the king’s orders, the godmother tells the Princess to ask for the skin of the King’s prized donkey. The reason the donkey is so prized is that he is the King’s bank – he excretes gold coins – to put it politely. The fairy and Princess both are sure he won’t kill his donkey, but sadly he does and presents the skin to the Princess. (Demy thankfully does not show the killing, which appears in one of the children’s animations in the extras.)
The godmother arranges for her to be whisked off to a neighboring domain, disguised (rather poorly one can observe) in the donkey skin as a disgusting dirty scullery maid who slops the pigs. And called – guess what – Donkey Skin. Yet due to the godmother’s magic, when the Princess is alone in her little hut she still looks the beautiful Princess and has lovely surroundings. A visiting young Prince (played by Perrin, who was the sailor in Young Girls of Rochefort – who at the very end is picked up on the road by a truck with his long-sought true love Deneuve as a passenger) strolls by her hut, sees the Princess reflected in her mirror and falls instantly in love. The Prince evidences he is dying of unrequited love and requests to cure it a cake baked by the Princess. She does and puts her ring inside it. He finds it and there follows a completely unnecessary thorough search (again Cinderella) for a lady in the kingdom – only this time it’s not a foot but a finger that must be the right size to fit the ring. (Does this dude have Alzeimer’s already?) Of course she’s finally found and major wedding festivities ensue – doubled because the fairy godmother is now marrying the king.
The staging and costumes support the enhancement of the fairy tale, and being French are of course tres chic. All the royal retinue who do not have major parts are either blue-skinned for the one kingdom or red for the other – including all the horses. The fairy godmother seems however to have some connections with the 20th century, because she has a modern telephone and even a helicopter! The slow-motion scenes of the Princess gliding thru the woods in her donkey skin to the music of Legrand are captivating. The video transfer is excellent, having been overseen by Jacque’s widow filmmaker Agnes Varda, and the extras are useful for those of us not brought up on Peau d’Âne.
– John Sunier