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Friday Film Review: Peau D’ane (Donkey Skin)

Peau D’ane (Donkey Skin) (1971)
Genre: Romantic Fairy Tale
Grade:B+

Last year after I had reviewed a series of Cinderella movies, a friend recommended that I try this French fairy tale called Donkey Skin – or Peau D’ane. I was game and rented it from Netflix. Talk about beautiful European WTFery. Holy heck. This one is oozing with it. But it’s also a charming tale which originally served a purpose as do most fairy tales. In this case, it’s don’t marry your daddy.

Catherine Deneuve stars as a Princess whose father (Jean Marais) seeks her hand in marriage after promising his dying wife (also played by Deneuve but with red hair) only to wed a woman more beautiful than she. Listening to her godmother, the Fairy of Lilacs (Delphine Seyrig) the frightened Princess first makes a series of impossible demands as a condition to her consent: a dress the color of good weather (look carefully for the fluffy white clouds that pass over it), then another the color of the moon, a third as bright as the sun and finally, after all those were met, the skin of her father’s prize donkey which excretes gems. When all these are met, her godmother advises her to flee while wearing the skin of the donkey as a disguise. At a farm in a neighboring country, she finds work as a scullery maid. A Prince (Jacques Perrin) passes by and spies her at home wearing one of her beautiful dresses and an unlikely romance is born. But can the Prince get his parents the Red King and Queen to agree to his marriage to a woman wearing such a smelly and disgusting hide?

Okay so the moral of the story is going to set off alarm bells – don’t marry your parents. But then…that’s the whole friggen point of fairy tales, to serve as a warning to growing children about what is and is most definitely not acceptable to do. Children probably won’t be as freaked out about it as their parents are and in fact, in the extras of the Koch Lorber DVD is a featurette about how French children view the fairy tale and this film. One thing I do really like about this film is that the Princess is proactive. She doesn’t just sit around the castle fending off Papa. Instead she seeks help, acts on the Fairy’s advice and is ready to make a play for her Prince when the moment is right.

The costumes! Totally fairy tale book vivid color, pseudo Renaissance except for the Lilac Fairy who sports peekaboo negligee style duds. The music by Michele Legrand is catchy to listen. Even if you don’t understand French it’s obvious that it rhymes nicely and I found myself tapping my toes and head bobbing along with it. Whoever did the subtitles even got them to rhyme too. Listen for a jaunty little number of the servants and working folk conjecturing about who this mysterious woman in a donkey skin is and a happy little tune the Princess sings as she bakes a gateau while she’s wearing her sun bright dress. Now if I tried that, I’d get flour and eggs all over it.

The scenery and sets are fabulous – the King’s large white cat throne, Princess’s garden bedroom, the stereotypical wretched woodcutter-style hut in the woods that Peau d’an lives in: It’s all straight out of a fairy tale book. But real castles and chateaux, the Chateau de Chambord and the Chateau du Plessis-Bouree, are also used.

Some of the make-up takes a little time to get used to – in the Princess’s kingdom it’s kind of like oompa-loompas plus their regular sized cousins and then there are the red horses in the Prince’s country….Oh, and the talking, seeing rose. If I read that in the story, it wouldn’t phase me but actually seeing a rose with a pair of lips is surreal. After that, seeing a blue and gold macaw in Renaissance Europe is nothing. The old woman who spits toads is cool. I feel sorry for the poor donkey though. What did he ever do but shit gold and gems and he gets axed. Don’t freak at the anachronistic arrival of the Lilac Fairy at the ending. It actually makes sense if you listen closely to the early descriptions of her talents.

Beautiful Catherine Deneuve and handsome (though very young looking) Jacques Perrin plus Jean Marias are a good start if you’re looking for reasons to watch this movie. Everything else is a great bonus though. It’s almost like a hallucinogenic trip but without the need for messy drugs. Come for the WTF but stay for the opulent beauty.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

27 Comments

  1. Claudine in France
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 06:50:21

    This review has taken me back to some long-forgotten part of my childhood!
    I vaguely remember watching this film as a child and I will certainly hunt down a DVD to watch it again, but as an adult this time!
    I know the mythical fairy tale and the three beautiful and colourful dresses but now, I want to see it again for its aesthetic side, and I want to find out if the cynical French adult can give way to the innocent child I was in the 70s when this film came out…

    As an aside, Jacques Demy (writer/producer), Michel Legrand (composer), Catherine Deneuve (the princess) and Jacques Perrin (the prince) had already worked together on another timeless and beautiful musical film, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) a few years before Peau d’Ane.
    Now, this, I remember vividly.

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  2. Mireya
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:00:42

    I read the fairy tale (in Spanish) several times over when I was a child. I had illustrated 8anthologies of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault (this tale belongs to Charles Perrault). .I never knew there was a movie made inspired by it! I am going to check it out.

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  3. Jayne
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:02:44

    @Claudine in France: Do try and track it down as the Koch Lorber DVD is gorgeous to look at and listen to. There are quite a few extras as well.

    Cate recommended I try “Les Demoiselles” and I enjoyed it, and reviewed it, too. It was kind of a bittersweet experience knowing it was one of the last films her sister made before her death.

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  4. Jayne
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:30:40

    @Mireya: I had never heard of the fairy tale until my friend mentioned it to me. I’m not sure how well known the story is in the US.

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  5. cecilia
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:41:07

    The movie sounds kind of amazing. I read a full-length novel of the story by Robin McKinley quite a few years ago (called Deerskin) – it was pretty horrific, though. Well-written, but there are some scenes that haunt me to this day. I think it would make it impossible for me to enjoy a less painful version.

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  6. Diana
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:41:47

    Robin McKinley did a version of this – Deerskin. I could only read it once. She writes beautifully but I don’t care to revisit the story.

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  7. Jayne
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:46:04

    @cecilia: @Diana: Wow, that must be some book for neither of you to want to read it again or watch a movie about the theme.

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  8. Hannah E.
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 07:58:58

    My introduction to this fairy tale was the novel Deerskin, by Robin McKinley. I think I was about 13 when I read it. My mom bought it for me, thinking it was YA (McKinley mainly writes YA), but I probably should not have read it that young. McKinley took the “Donkey Skin” story a step further: the father actually rapes the teenage princess, and she later has a miscarriage. I had never read anything that dark before, and I was deeply disturbed by it. I’ve never liked this fairy tale since then. Too much ick factor.

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  9. MarieC
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 08:44:29

    Great review! I also read Deerskin, but had been familiar with the fairytale, courtesy of Andrew Lang’s color fairytale books. While not enamored with this story, I’d be interested in watching this movie.

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  10. Christine M.
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 09:13:51

    I think Peau d’âne is well known in the Francophonie. Perrault is just as well known as Anderson or the Grimms and a version of Peau d’âne was in almost all of my fairy tales books/anthologies when I was young. I’d never heard there was a film of it, though. I remember IniMiniMagiMo (children tv show in the late 80s featuring ‘theatrical’ adaptations of faery tales) doing an excellent version of the tale (4×15 min or so) but this particular tale hasn’t be released to dvd yet.

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  11. hapax
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 09:21:57

    DEERSKIN is actually my *favorite* Robin McKinley book, but it is definitely not for children.

    The understated romance is achingly sweet, but the real story is how the princess heals from abuse, and finds the strength to face her father and make a new future for herself. And the imagery McKinley uses — the Lady, the squirming puppies, the mysterious stain on the floor, oh! so many scenes — are just gorgeous and poetic and perfect and will stay with you forever.

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  12. Estara
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 09:33:31

    When I hear Jean Marais and fairy tale, I can only think of Belle et la Bete – I think that was by Cocteau? Incredible imagery.

    McKinley’s Deerskin – as has been said above, if you get through the first few pages, when the actual abuse happens then the book is a confirmation for surviving abuse (and to be one it has to describe the aftermath and recuperation of the survivor) and making your own life and going beyond. That Deerskin at the end finds romance is a nice addendum but in no way central to her reclaiming herself.

    Caveat: not having been a victim of sexual abuse I don’t know whether McKinley actually reached her goal.

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  13. Faye
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 11:41:26

    I also thought of Deerskin immediately. I read it several times in my early teens and want to track down a copy again now. I loved the story of her survival and, like Estara said, the idea of her building her own life. And, of course, the abundance of puppies and dogs.

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  14. Laura Florand
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 12:19:48

    This is such a famous film! (For the French.) Jayne, I love your review of it, you’ve really captured it. I’m going off to work on Cocteau’s Belle et la bête with my class right this minute, so I loved seeing the reference. That one is another one worth a look, a true iconic film, made right after the Liberation (you have to accept that you are stepping into another era of film production of course, to appreciate exactly what Cocteau accomplished).

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  15. Danielle
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 12:39:52

    Peau d’Âne was a favourite childhood film of one of my friends, and, years later, when one of the local cinemas was showing a retrospective of fairytale films we both went to watch it. She was just as enchanted but I was too busy thinking what the… to really be able to enjoy it on its own terms. You have inspired me to try again! Have you seen any of Jacques Demy’s other films from the sixties? I quite like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (also featuring Deneuve) despite the ending. Lovely music and visually striking. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (again with Deneuve, plus her sister, Françoise Dorléac) didn’t give me the same magic, though, leaving mainly an impression of silliness and artificiality. But then I haven’t seen it in more than a decade, and might be able to appreciate it better now.

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  16. etv13
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 14:28:21

    There’s also a version of this story called “Princess Furball” with really charming illustrations. In that variant, she runs away from marrying an ogre who’s going to give her father wagonloads of treasure as a bride-price.

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  17. etv13
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 14:31:39

    I couldn’t remember the author’s or illustrator’s names for “Princess Furball” so I went to Amazon to check. They are Charlotte Huck and Anita Lobel.

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  18. Mireya
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 15:20:47

    @Hannah E.: That’s sad. The fairytale is such a nice story that I can barely imagine twisting it that way! I have liked some of McKinley’s work, but I am not touching this one with a ten-foot pole. That is horrific indeed. :(

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  19. Mireya
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 15:22:54

    @hapax: Now I am reading your post… and I am getting curious… but I don’t know… rape? :(

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  20. Laura Florand
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 16:57:49

    @Mireya: I don’t think she twists it. The fairy-tale is about a father’s obsessive love for his daughter, to the point that she has to flee and hide herself from him under a donkey skin, because he is forcing her to “marry” him. I feel as if Robin McKinley just digs into the truth of how truly dark and ugly that is. But, although it is a superbly written, strong book, and I have it on my shelf, I also never pull it down to re-read. It is just too terrible. But my favorites of hers will probably always be The Blue Sword (so good), and The Hero and the Crown. But both the Beauty books are wonderful, too.

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  21. Jayne
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 18:41:46

    @Danielle: I think you nailed “Les Demoiselles” with the adjectives silliness and artificiality. I watched it last year about this time and those are the first things to come to mind about it. http://dearauthor.com/features/film-reviews/friday-film-review-les-demoiselles-de-rochefort/

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  22. Jayne
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 18:48:51

    @etv13: Title love! I’m going to have to check this one out since I spend my days catering to two little Princess Furballs now.

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  23. cecilia
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 18:54:44

    @Laura Florand: and@Mireya: I agree, I don’t think it’s a twisting of the story – it’s just a heightening of the brutality and wrongness that’s already inherently part of the story.

    I think my favourite of McKinley’s is Beauty, but The Blue Sword is a very close second!

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  24. cleo
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 19:41:43

    @Estara: As someone who was sexually abused, I remember Deerskin as being hard to read but emotionally accurate – I read it at least 15 years ago, so I don’t remember many details. It didn’t make it to my keeper shelf (don’t remember why), but it is on my mental list of a handful of books that deal well with sex’l abuse and recovery.

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  25. Hannah E.
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 23:12:32

    @cecilia:

    I loved The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, but my personal favorite of McKinley’s books has always been Rose Daughter. It remains my favorite retelling of Beauty and the Beast. After reading her other fantasy and fairy tale books, Deerskin was a rude awakening. Oddly enough, I remember it better than any of McKinley’s other books, simply because it upset me so much. But I agree that the “wrongness” is already inherent in the story. McKinley just followed it to its logical conclusion.

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  26. Estara
    Apr 14, 2012 @ 19:20:51

    @cleo: Thank you for the confirmation. I’m sorry you are in a position to give it to me, though.

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  27. Amanda
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 15:29:39

    This movie has been a favorite of mine for many years. The only problem with this gorgeous DVD restoration is that the musical theme for one of the gowns is left out (yes, each of the three requested gowns has its own theme tune!).

    I too read and was traumatized by McKinley’s Deerskin. Her novel “Beauty” remains one of my favorites, but DS was an entirely different kind of world, one I don’t want to revisit. And to add unintentional gallows humor to the most traumatic scene, we learn that the king rapes his daughter “once, twice, three times,” which makes me think of that pop song. Not the association McKinley was going for, I’m sure.

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