Monday, January 18, 2016

#718: Donkey Skin

(Jacques Demy, 1970)

Demy's career took another quick turn with Donkey Skin, a film that preserved his musical ambitions but settled into a sort of fractured Disney structure, matching a somewhat straightforward telling of a classic French fairy tale with both parody and adult-friendly winks at the camera. Although it doesn't reach the heights of any of the previous films in the Demy boxset - especially not those of Lola or Umbrellas, the two classics - it manages enough charm and visual vibrancy to carry it through its brief running time.

Of course, Donkey Skin can't be discussed without a mention of its rather distasteful main conflict, which revolves around a princess being forced to avoid her father's desire to marry her. Rather than being repulsed by the idea, the princess is dissuaded from the proposal by her fairy godmother, who sings her a happy tune about how fathers and daughters really shouldn't marry. Of course, the godmother has her own reasons for turning her friend off of the whole incest thing, which is a nice distraction from the fact that this is all a bit off, and anyway this is all just a French fantasy so lets just dismiss the whole thing.

Two things won me over during my viewing of Donkey Skin. The first, and most obvious, is the production design. Demy by this point was virtually identified by his technicolor palette, and Donkey Skin would not change anyone's mind about this characteristic. Everything from the impressive way he pulls off the various dresses made for the princess to the blue/red themes of the two major kingdoms in the film (horses, men, and various objects are covered in the respective colors) creates a fantastical universe to explore and get lost in. Demy takes a similarly liberal approach to cinematic tricks, deploying slow motion, rewind, and various other tricks whenever the urge arrives. It matches the film's imaginative story and playful tone nicely.

The second thing that got me wrapped up in the film was the wink Demy turned toward the audience. At one point, the princess's fairy godmother explains that her powers can sometimes run low, "like a battery," to which the princess quickly replies "what's a battery?" In the final moments of the film, the godmother and the princess's father arrive at the wedding in a helicopter Walker-style. In other moments, the film isn't as anachronistic as it is knowing, like in the cake-baking scene where Deneuve's performance nearly bubbles over, threatening to spill out of the pot into the fire of parody. I don't think the film needed these moments to carry it through, but in the same way that a Pixar film is bolstered by jokes that only adults will understand, Donkey Skin is a better movie because of this added layer.

There are definitely parts of the film that don't come off cleanly. The shifts in perspective are a bit frustrating, as the prince lacks any real charisma and even Marais as the king is fairly unlikeable (not only because he wants to sleep with his daughter), though the actor's presence links the film eternally with Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (the director's films are referenced throughout the film, as pointed out in the accompanying essay). So the film doesn't come off as well as the previous four films in the set, but it's nevertheless a fun ride and one that I imagine would reward multiple viewings for the production value alone.

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