With only a rough third of his singsong filmography familiar to American movieheads, French new wave fantasist Jacques Demy seems long overdue for a wall-to-wall Gotham retrospective. While we wait, the re-release of Donkey Skin (Peau d’Âne), his buttery 1970 romp through Charles Perrault, hits Film Forum as a holiday nosh. Seasonally it’s more appropriate as a May Day bacchanal, but in any month Demy’s movie makes for an evocative globe-paperweight tableau of its place and time, and a concise demonstration of the disquietude inherent in classic fairy tales. That the story involves the marriage-lust of a grieving king (Cocteau axiom Jean Marais) for his luscious daughter (Catherine Deneuve) is only the tale’s wacky Freudian nut; around them gallops a soft parade of costume-ball silliness, frog-spitting hags, blue-skinned servants, talking yellow roses, out-of-body rendezvous, and fastidious gownery. Demy conscientiously contrasts authentic French castles and cardboard interiors, sun-sparkled northern French glades and hot-pink gel-splashes, sleight-of-hand F/X and fluorescent iris-outs. When muddleheaded fairy godmother Delphine Seyrig decides to change the color of her silk raiments, she does so via a simple Méliès jump cut.
Perrault, when he is literally adapted, is a smash-up of incorrect royalism, matter-of-fact sex crime, and medieval misogyny, and Demy never explicitly interrogates Donkey Skin‘s story—unless you count the frequent Michel Legrand songs, jazzily chirping through the scenario, as a sort of bad-cop rib-kicking. Which they might be: Demy has the climactic wedding guests arrive on the palace lawn in a helicopter, an almost Alex Cox-ian jolt that suggests a subtle farcical program that suddenly becomes restless and explicit. In any case, the prescribed happy ending is difficult to take seriously relative to the images of Deneuve, three years after her Buñuel mud bath in Belle de Jour, groveling in the forest dirt wearing a musty pelt. Demy loved romantic naïveté, but he loved the wreckage of human whim just as much, and for him this chestnut harbored both in its shell.