Donkey Skin: Demy’s Fairy-Tale Worlds

On Film / Essays — Jul 28, 2014

Jacques Demy’s lifelong interest in the fairy-tale genre is well-known, recounted by critics Jean-Pierre Berthomé, Camille Taboulay, and Rodney Hill, among others. As a child, Demy designed a puppet theater, which he used to stage tales like “Cinderella” and “Donkey Skin,” from Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. In the early 1950s, he wrote a script for a projected film about a Sleeping Beauty, which never came to fruition. Both Lola (1961) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) make fairy-tale allusions and play on the genre’s happily-ever-after convention. But it was not until Donkey Skin (1970) that Demy created his first full-fledged fairy-tale film, followed two years later by The Pied Piper.

Not particularly well-known to Anglophone readers, Perrault’s “Donkey Skin,” a tale about a father who wishes to marry his daughter, occupies an important place alongside his “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” in the classical fairy-tale canon in France. Despite the problematic nature of its subject matter, the tale continues to be widely published. The basic plotline, about a dying wife who asks her husband not to marry again unless he finds a woman as beautiful as herself, which leads to the father’s incestuous request, has antecedents in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century fairy tales of Italian writers Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile. Familiar with their works, Perrault penned his classical version in 1694, during the latter period of Louis XIV’s reign. Given the lavishness of the Sun King’s court, it should come as no surprise that Perrault’s princess would request three luxurious dresses to avert her father’s demand. In the film, Demy makes explicit reference to Louis XIV’s court society in the list of ladies who come to try on the ring, several of whom are modeled after seventeenth-century “celebrities,” including the seminal novelist Madame de La Fayette (the film’s Princess Pioche de la Vergne) and the famed epistolary writer Madame de Sévigné (the Marquise Marie de Rabutin-Chantal).

“Donkey Skin” was reproduced in collections of fairy tales throughout the nineteenth century, a period in which vaudeville adaptations of the stories also became quite popular. One such adaptation of “Donkey Skin,” by Emile Vanderburch, Evrard Laurencin, and Charles Clairville, was a big success in the 1860s and 1870s. However, the story of incest was replaced by a plot focusing on the coquetry of the princess, for which she is punished by having to wear the donkey skin (in the original, she uses the disguise to conceal her identity from her father). Drawing from the vaudeville play, Pathé Frères director Albert Capellani adapted the tale to the screen in 1908 and again completely avoided the question of incest. It would seem that reading about father-daughter incest was more palatable than seeing it represented onstage or on-screen.

Demy likely was familiar with the Vanderburch-Laurencin-Clairville play, from which he appears to have drawn for his depiction of the Lilac Fairy. In the vaudeville version, when the heroine approaches the fairy for help, the latter is annoyed that she has been bothered before she has properly dressed and done her hair, then counsels the heroine: “My dear Lilia, keep this in mind: whatever grief a woman might have, she must never neglect her appearance . . . First one must make oneself up, and then one can cry, and not too much. Nothing dulls the luster of one’s eyes like tears.” In Demy’s film, the Lilac Fairy similarly complains about being surprised by the heroine before finishing her toilette, and then tells the princess: “Don’t cry, child. Tears ruin and furrow your face.” However, unlike his vaudeville and cinematic predecessors, Demy refocuses the story on the incest plot, a theme that would continue to fascinate him, as evidenced most notably in his final film, Three Seats for the 26th (1988), in which father-daughter incest is unwittingly consummated.

Undoubtedly, the most important influence on Demy’s adaptation of “Donkey Skin” is the work of Jean Cocteau. Already his choice of Jean Marais as the incestuous father—the “monster” of the tale—is a wink to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), in which Marais plays the Beast. As Berthomé has noted, Demy plays visually on the connection between the two characters, dressing the king in a broad-shouldered cloak that resembles the one worn by Cocteau’s Beast. Significantly, in both films Marais incarnates the object of the heroine’s transgressive desire. Critics have remarked upon Beauty’s disappointment at the end of the film to see her beast transformed into a prince. In a similar manner, the princess of Donkey Skin displays disappointment when she learns that the Lilac Fairy will be wedding her father, just as she herself prepares to marry the prince. Noticing the princess’s displeasure, the Lilac Fairy declares: “I’m marrying your father, my darling. Try to look pleased.”

Demy makes several other filmic citations of Cocteau’s cinema. The princess’s chambers at her father’s castle resemble those of Beauty at the Beast’s castle. As he looks for Donkey Skin’s humble cottage, the prince encounters a rather surreal rose in the woods that references the hand from Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930): both bear a “real” mouth at their center, which allows them to speak. When the prince finally arrives at the cottage, he is prevented from approaching it by a glass wall. The scene is shot from the position of the cottage, meaning that the viewer faces the prince, immobilized by the glass. This shot nearly replicates the one from Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) in which Orpheus (also played by Marais) is prevented from passing through a magical mirror.

Throughout Donkey Skin, Demy playfully challenges the ideological and aesthetic norms of the classical fairy tale à la Perrault, as well as the early filmic adaptations of Walt Disney Studios, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), which Demy also admired. Generally, in Perrault and in classic Disney, gender roles are conservative: it is the male character who actively desires the passive female character, whose role is limited to being the hero’s object of desire, waiting for her prince. In Demy’s film, however, the daughter significantly desires the father as much as he desires her. And at one point, she appears able to magically position the prince so that she can gaze upon him when he approaches her cottage in the woods. Demy thus gives the princess more agency than the heroines of Perrault or Disney.

At the same time that the film shakes up gender norms, it also challenges sexual taboos. For instance, when the princess seeks out her fairy godmother for advice about her father’s marriage proposal, which she is inclined to accept, the Lilac Fairy opposes the princess’s incestuous desire for reasons of “culture” and “legislature,” not morality, and because she herself is in love with the king. Demy’s cinematic rewriting of “Donkey Skin” consequently denaturalizes sexual taboos: they are culturally determined, created by human beings. In some respects, then, the rivalry between the heroine and her fairy godmother—completely atypical of traditional fairy tales—attenuates any condemnation the fairy might have of the princess’s transgressive desire.

Aesthetically, Demy does a wonderful job of both celebrating and undermining fairy-tale traditions. In a 1971 interview with the French weekly Télérama, he noted: “When I wrote the scene where we see Donkey Skin kneading the dough and singing the song of the love cake, I saw Snow White, assisted by birds, preparing a pie.” However, the fact that Demy’s princess bakes a cake in her most exquisite gown, topped off with a gold crown, makes this scene of conventional domesticity look most artificial or unnatural. In a similar manner, the film situates the Lilac Fairy’s boudoir in the middle of the woods, juxtaposing incongruous elements to destabilize both the nature in which the boudoir is set and the aristocratic space.

The Lilac Fairy herself incarnates an incongruity, which weaves its way through the film, between modernity and the ancien régime past. With her 1930s Jean Harlow look, she contrasts sharply with the other characters, in their Renaissance and Louis Quatorziéme fashion. The Lilac Fairy’s modernity is again emphasized in her gift to the king of “poetry from the future,” which turns out to have been penned by twentieth-century poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Cocteau, and which makes reference to such modern gadgets as gaslights and telephones. This association with modernity culminates in her vehicle of “magical” transportation. Whereas seventeenth-century French fairies typically ride through the skies in flying chariots, the Lilac Fairy transports herself through space via helicopter. All of this blending of “once upon a time” with the modern serves to disrupt the universe of the traditional fairy tale, adding a level of self-reflexivity that makes us aware of its artificiality.

But Donkey Skin is not just a challenge to fairy-tale traditions; Demy also uses it to build on the experimental fantasy work of Cocteau and his own previous films. The saturated colors and the operetta-like features of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), which make of the provincial town an unreal, magical space of love, anticipate Demy’s use of color and the marvelous in Donkey Skin. The notion of denaturalizing sexual taboos, so common in Cocteau, crosses much of Demy’s work, seen in the attraction of older women for the younger Roland in Lola and Umbrellas, and more explicitly in the same-sex kisses in Lady Oscar (1979) and Parking (1985), culminating in Three Seats for the 26th, in which incest is treated without shame. (This is not to suggest that Demy condoned incest; rather, we should read incest in his films as a figure for transgression of normative sexuality.) By granting Donkey Skin agency in her own desire, and by denaturalizing women’s relation to domesticity, Demy importantly challenges not only traditional fairy-tale gender and sexual norms but also those of contemporary France. These challenges would come to a head nine years later with Demy’s swashbuckling and truly revolutionary character Lady Oscar.

With the princess’s apparent disappointment, or at least ambivalence, at the end of the film, Demy’s Donkey Skin can be situated in relation to such films as Lola, whose fairy-tale ending is subverted in Model Shop (1969), and Umbrellas, whose story moves from the Technicolor marvelous to the darker colors of melodrama as the fairy tale of the mechanic and the shopgirl ends tragically (or, read in another light, the shopgirl’s “fairy-tale marriage” to a wealthy man turns out to be less than ideal). In all of these films, the socially sanctioned dream—marriage to the wealthy young prince—cannot satisfy or fulfill the heroine’s unconventional desires. Demy thus draws on the genre of the fairy tale to question the prefabricated dreams that reinforced 1950s and 1960s bourgeois ideals, on the one hand, and to open up a subversive dream space that points to alternative possibilities, on the other. As Donkey Skin would suggest, the “dream coming true” (marriage to a prince) may not be all that it is cut out to be, nor can fairy tales guarantee us a “happily ever after.”