Donkey Skin (1970)

“Once upon a time there was a king so great, so loved by his people and so respected by neighbouring kingdoms that he was the happiest of monarchs. And his happiness was even greater for having chosen a beautiful and virtuous wife. The couple lived in perfect harmony. They had a daughter of such grace and charm that they never regretted having but one child. Their palace was a marvel of taste and abundance. The buildings were magnificent and the vast stables were filled with the most handsome steeds. But what most surprised visitors was a donkey displayed in the most prominent place. This iniquity may surprise you, but when you learn of the creature’s rare ability, you will agree that this honour was its due.”

‘Donkey Skin’, directed by Jacques Demy in 1970, is a musical adaptation of a French fairy-tale and, if it was a person it would be institutionalised. It tells the story of a widowed king with a donkey who, apparently painfully, excretes jewels. The king falls in love with his own daughter and seeks to woo her, so to deflect his attentions, the daughters fairy-godmother convinces her to wear a costume made of the flayed skin of the donkey, thus bringing to an end both the king’s easy cash flow and the donkey’s rectal suffering. A prince from another land falls for the princess and ultimately wins her after she splits herself into two and bakes him a cake. Finally the king marries the fairy-godmother and the princess marries the prince. It’s a rich, slippery, almost parodic movie, filled with stunning but disconcerting visuals, Jean Cocteau-style effects and on-the-edge performances. I’m aware that a great deal of my review has been taken up with a description of the events in the film, but this is a reflection of how anarchically insane it is. Having watched it, I sat for a while in silence trying to work out what I’d watched. It’s a film that you have to release yourself to, much like (but far in excess of) his later movie ‘The Pied Piper’, Demy presents an abstracted view of reality: the servants and horses in the different kingdoms are painted in primary colours and the king, played by Cocteau’s muse and lover Jean Marais, reclines on a magnificent giant stuffed cat. These surreal visual touches coupled with the music and the anachronisms (particularly an outrageous mode of transport used in the final scene that I won’t spoil) make this film curious both hard to pin down, but also incredibly compelling and immersive.

Would I recommend it? Yes, a double-bill could be with ‘Orpheus’ or ‘La Belle et la Bête’ given the clear nods to Cocteau, or with Demy’s later ‘The Pied Piper’, a film that shares some of the same visual flourishes and quirks. As a contrast you could try ‘Andrei Rublev’, but that would probably be going too far.

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