Color, 1970, 100m. / Directed by Jacques Demy / Starring Catherine Deneueve, Delphine Seyrig, Jean Marais / Paramount (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DD4.0


The spirit of Jean Cocteau lingers in every frame of Donkey Skin, a charming fairy tale from musical innovator Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Notably reigning in the wall-to-wall singing and dancing which filled his previous three films, Demy and musical collaborator Michel Legrand here turn their attention to a well-known European fairy tale from the pen of Charles Perrault (Beauty and the Beast) with the aid of regular Demy muse Catherine Deneuve. The result is odd but utterly endearing, a candy-colored chamber fantasy ripe for rediscovery.

Recently widowed, a grief-stricken king (Marais) is haunted by the proclamation that he may only marry someone whose loveliness can match that of his departed wife. However, the only woman in the kingdom who can fill such a daunting requirement is his daughter, the lovely princess (Deneuve), who is more than a tad confused by her father's offer of marriage. Fortunately a fairy godmother (Daughters of Darkness' Seyrig) appears to explain in song why girls can't marry their parents and counsels the girl on how to avoid such a deranged fate. The girl asks for a succession of seemingly impossible dresses (the color of the weather, the color of the moon, and so on), all of which her father somehow accomplishes. Finally the godmother arranges for the princess to escape from the kingdom wearing the hide of a dead donkey(!); at a nearby village, the princess - now known as "Peau d'ne" ("Donkey Skin") - sets up residence in a woodland shack and becomes the joke of the town. However, a passing prince (Jacques Perrin, future director of Winged Migration) spots Donkey Skin through the window and falls madly in love. He decrees to his baffled parents that he must have a cake created by Donkey Skin, setting off a chain of events which leads to a masked ball of birds and cats, a ring-fitting ceremony for all the maidens of the kingdom, and a most unlikely royal arrival by helicopter.

Blessed with catchy songs and amusing production design, Donkey Skin is a much more modest production than the opulent Cherbourg and its companion piece, The Young Girls of Rochefort. Though suitable for young viewers, the combination of fairy tale whimsy with surrealist undertones makes this a perfect companion piece for Demy's English-language fairy tale, The Pied Piper, which injected folksy music into a gothic tale crammed with plagues and (understated) perversion. As usual, Seyrig is a delight and swipes the film as "la fe des lilas," while Deneuve is gorgeous and lip-synchs with the best of them. Though saddled with some extraordinarily silly outfits, Perrin (sporting a big brown mop of hair) is an appealing Prince Charming as well. Of course, the real stars here are Demy's colorful eye and Legrand's music, a combination that never failed.

Paramount's dandy two-disc set does justice to a film never before presented properly on home video. The restored source material looks extremely good, though some inherent softness in the photography is evident in a few medium shots. Colors are very vivid, with the contrasts from Deneuve's kingdom (blue) and Perrin's (red) resulting in a striking shift in color palette halfway into the film. The audio can be played either in two-channel stereo or a new 4.0 mix; the latter punches up the score and offers a much more full-bodied experience than before, even compared to the soundtrack CD. Optional English subtitles are clear and well-written throughout.

Disc two (which thankfully also contains optional English subtitles for most of the supplements) contains a nice bounty of extras, including the theatrical trailer, a relevant excerpt from Agnes Varda's The World of Jacques Demy complete with on-set footage and Demy interviews, and more recent interviews with the surviving principals including Deneuve. Other extras include a 1908 silent version of the fairy tale, a comic book version, a documentary covering the tale's history, a children's educational video guide, Karaoke versions of the three of the songs ("Amour, amour!"), and Catherine Deneuve virtual paper dolls! A very magical package all around.


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