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Peau d'âne

Available from Amazon:
Peau d'âne (Donkey Skin, 1970), Jacques Demy, music by Michel Legrand
The wonder of Netflix continues. They may not have all the French movies I want to watch in their collection, but they have a lot of them. I like the films of Jacques Demy, and I recently watched their copy of his bizarre, kitschy fairy tale, Peau d'âne. Demy stayed fairly close to his source, Charles Perrault's short story of the same name (in English, Donkey Skin), about a princess who is hidden from her own father by her fairy godmother, who disguises the princess in a donkey skin. It is not a story that has made it into the average American child's standard collection of fairy tales. However, Demy transforms the story into something quite different, by adding details that modernize and update it, while also keeping it close to Perrault's original. (The story also fascinated novelist Pierre Loti as a child.)

Also on Ionarts:

Michel Legrand Interview (August 26, 2005)

La Deneuve in Cannes (May 13, 2005)

Le Jazz in Saint-Germain (May 8, 2005)

Agnès Varda, Jacquot de Nantes (February 19, 2005)

Pierre Loti's Toy Stage (December 31, 2004)
Demy's most wonderful invention is the quirky character of the Fée des Lilas, the Lilac Fairy, who is the princess's godmother. The role was played by Delphine Seyrig, the Franco-Lebanese actress seen also in Truffaut's Baisers volés, Buñuel's Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, and many other films. This fairy godmother is flighty, blonde, beautiful, elegant, vain, and obsessed with decorum and appearances. She reminds me a lot of Madame Emery -- Catherine Deneuve's mother, played by Anne Vernon -- in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Something happened between the Lilac Fairy and the king in Peau d'âne that made her angry, but neither will tell the princess about it. In the end of Demy's version, after she has hidden the princess away for most of the film, the fairy godmother ends up married to the king.

The modern world creeps in to the fairy tale through the Lilac Fairy, who seems to come from the future or has at least visited our time. She makes a reference at one point to "une pille" (a battery) but then tells the princess, who doesn't understand, not to worry about it. At the princess's marriage at the end, she and the king arrive, mysteriously, in a helicopter. When the king is trying to woo his own daughter, convinced that she is the only princess more beautiful than his recently deceased wife (fulfilling her final wish, that he marry only something more beautiful than she), he reads from the books of poetry that the Lilac Fairy brought him from the future. At least one of the poems I recognized as the work of Guillaume Apollinaire, from his poem L'Amour:
L'anneau se met à l'annulaire
Après le baiser des aveux
Ce que nos lèvres murmurèrent
Est dans l'anneau des annulaires
Mets des roses dans tes cheveux.
The costumes in this film, it's true, are the worst kind of kitsch, a Disney vision of the Renaissance. However, it is so beautifully shot, much of it on location at Chambord and a few other châteaux in the Loire Valley. There are several scenes of Catherine Deneuve, in her donkey skin, running through the woods, slowed down just enough to appear to float but not enough to seem truly like slow motion. These scenes are not narrative, only about showing something beautiful. Michel Legrand's music is good but not as memorable as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg or Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

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