The Magic Donkey

 (Jacques Demy, France, 1970) 89 minutes


Director: Jacques Demy
Producer: Mag Bodard
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Based on a fairytale by Charles Perrault
Art Directors: Jacques Dugied, Jim Leon
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Editor: Anne-Marie Cotret
Music: Michel Legrand
Catherine Deneuve (Queen / Princess)
Jean Marais (King)
Jacques Perrin (Prince)
Delphine Seyrig (Lilac Fairy)
Micheline Presle (Second Queen)
Fernand Ledoux (Second King)
Sacha Pitoeff (Minister)
Henri Cremieux (Doctor)

Reviews and notes

An extremely touching vulnerability is manifest in the curious figure cut by Catherine Deneuve as she goes wildly on her way through the forest, besmirched by the nastiness of nature, clad in the skin of a donkey, yet obviously worthy of royal wedlock. This is a sophisticated fairy tale, as you can tell at once from the aura of Jean Marais as a troubled king, and from the blithe nonchalance of Delphine Seyrig as a fairy godmother.

The director Jacques Demy has made it clear, from La Baie des Anges to The Model Shop, that he is prepared to meander wherever his fancy leads him, while at the same time retaining his intellectual prowess, his warm French heart, and his delicate wit. All these virtues are evident in Peau d'Ane.

To the story by Charles Perrault, Demy has applied a saucy worldliness that never relinquishes the original charm but renders it sufficiently astringent for current tastes. Children might possibly be taken to it, but the true joy of the thing belongs to adults who remember childhood with a certain affection and yet are quite happy to have left it behind them. According to Demy, the king's idea of a replacement for his dead wife (who told him to marry again but to choose somebody more beautiful than herself) would have to be his very own daughter. Thereupon the whole springboard of action is transmogrified into a retreat from incest.

At the same time, the visuals bespeak enchantment. The colour most in evidence at court is blue, a tint which extends to the very skin pigment of certain lackeys. The ambiance is of a story book sprung alive, and endowed with worldly grace notes. Thus, a political strategy is ordained by the fairy godmother, who advises the princess to ward off her father's desires by stipulating conditions that he will never be able to fulfil. Happily we watch as the king amazingly grants her demands for gowns to simulate the whims of the weather, the magic of the moon, and the glory of the sun. Yet simultaneously, amid the splendour, we note the increasing despair of the princess.

It is now that the girl takes the extreme measure of asking her father to give her the skin of the palace donkey, the animal which defecates sparkling riches every morning in a veritable cascade of precious stones. We see the creature do it: here is a functional bank, a prize among beasts, not to be sacrificed lightly ? yet slaughtered it is for the whim of a girl who seems to her father outrageously capricious but who is really sick at heart.

Demy permits just a trace of realism to intrude upon his legendary environments when the escape through the forest brings dirt to the fair royal face. The princess engenders sympathy as she becomes the donkey-skin girl of the original title, finding a job as scullery maid at a farm in the kingdom adjacent to her father's. She has been materialistic enough to carry with her the three sensational dresses, along with some jewellery, including a magic ring from the fairy godmother. She dons the sun gown one day in secret, and is her former glorious self when the local prince (Jacques Perrin) just happens to catch a furtive glimpse of her. The sight makes him literally sick with love, and in attitudes of hilariously helpless languor he waves off all offers of consolation until he can attain the visionary girl as his mate.

The droll effect is heightened by the eye-stunning impact of this other court, where the colour in favour is red. Meanwhile, like some inexperienced housewife driven to urgent extremes, the princess in her retreat is prompted to make a cake, into which the magic ring will be mixed to eventually reach the ailing prince's lips, leading on to his discovery of the wife he requires. This is especially pleasing to the fairy godmother, who has set her own cap at the bereft father of the princess and has gained his love for whatever it might be worth without the donkey.

As in Les parapluies de Cherbourg and Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Demy is aptly attuned to the gently sentimental music provided by Michel Legrand. The mood has altered a good deal, of course, since the poetic reality of Demy's notable Lola, and I begin to feel that he is moving as if with disdain from the sadness of the everyday. He always did operate to some extent upon the periphery of dreams, dealing in a seemingly impractical yet touchingly optimistic wishfulness. A transition to make-believe land, with one toe at least on the actual earth, gives his talent a range which he indulges to a nicety.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, March 1973.

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