Peau d’Âne (Donkey Skin), 1970

I’ve had a Jacques Demy boxset sitting on my ‘to watch’ shelf for some years. I don’t remember where or when I bought it (I remember why, obviously: I wanted to watch the films) but I know it’s been sitting there for far too long (though not as long as others have). Recently, I decided it was about time I cracked it open. The last I watched, Peau d’Âne (Donkey Skin), turned out to be my favourite, which I hadn’t expected at all. I’d thought I’d probably enjoy it, but prefer either Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) or Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort). But Donkey Skin it was! I feel like I’m in the minority, here, though.

It’s such a strange fairy tale to start with (I was familiar with the story, by Charles Perrault, before ever knowing of the film) and this adaptation fully embraces the absurdity. For those who don’t know, it’s basically about a king who decides he wants to marry his daughter (he had promised his wife, on her death bed, to not marry again unless it was to someone more beautiful than she) and so the princess ends up disguising herself in a donkey pelt and running away. (More or less).

030-donkey-skin-theredlistIt’s been described as part fairytale satire, and largely referencing Cocteau (apparently, I’m ashamed to admit to never having seen any of Cocteau’s films) yet still a fairytale film on its own. I feel this is apt. (You know, despite not having seen any of Cocteau’s films – I absolutely, certainly will at some point).

But, first, let’s talk costumes and sets, because they’re always what I notice first and think of the most. In terms of sets and set dressing, things that particularly caught my eye: Deneuve’s bed that looks like a meadow, living statues, the throne in the form of a gigantic white cat, the Lilac Fairy’s outdoors vanity and the touches of glam in Donkey Skin’s ramshackle cabin.

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New life goal: acquire cat shaped throne.

And then, to costumes, all of those dresses! My gosh. They’d be beautiful enough without the ‘gimmicks’ but they become ultra dazzling with clouds projected on them or luminous spots. It’s all very dreamy and whimsical. And even dressed like a donkey, Deneuve is radiant.

Wearing the skin of an ass. Still beautiful.

Wearing the skin of an ass. Still beautiful.

The Lilac Fairy was fantastic, too. Not least because of her Endora-esque costumes.

av7m8xr1_n0g28lThe playful poking of fun at fairy tale films was diverting, and I think most noticeable with the prince. The scene where he demands that all the maidens of the kingdom be rounded up to find the one girl who fits the ring, even though he obviously knows it belongs to Donkey Skin, highlights the absurdity of fairytale rituals and the almost capricious nature of the prince. I mean, I’m fairly certain that he’s also manipulating his parents, so they’ll let him marry Donkey Skin, but geez!

ecran8I hadn’t realised until I finished the film, but the princess/Donkey Skin becomes more interesting when she’s wearing the pelt than when she’s in the garb of her ‘true’ self (although her task setting for the king, under the intstruction of the Lilac Fairy is fun to watch, she seems more passive in her role as princess). I wonder if this is a pointed comment on the blandness of fairy tale princesses in many films or if I somehow related to her more as Donkey Skin. (Wonder if that’s something to worry about? Ha.)

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Oh, and the musical numbers were delightful! I especially enjoyed the song the Lilac Fairy sings about children not marrying their parents and the one about baking a cake. So strange, yet such fun. (I think that describes the film, on a whole, pretty well.)

Disjointed review aside, let’s leave it with saying I enjoyed this film immensely. I admit, the helicopter at the end had me stumped, though.

Within the past year (or so) I’ve watched maybe 4 European fairytale films and I think I want to watch more. Actually, I think I just want to watch more non-Disney fairytale films especially ones that embrace the strangeness of these stories. Any recommendations are most welcome.

La Belle et la Bête (2014)

la-belle-et-la-bete-photo-52cc32a725361Thanks to the Alliance Française French Film Festival I was finally able to see Christophe Gans’ live action adaptation of La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), last week. (I say ‘finally’ but it was only released last year, so not too long to wait!) It was interesting to see this film not long after the announcement of the Disney live action film. I’m still not sure I’m excited for that one or not – not in the way I’d been excited for this version, at least. Belle is played by Léa Seydoux, who is steadily becoming one of my favourite actresses and la Bête by Vincent Cassiel.

I’ll admit, I’m a very aesthetic person so I’m highly affected by how things look. Luckily film is a visual medium, so I suppose that comes in handy (maybe – I’m not sure if one is really meant to admit to being somewhat of an ‘aesthete’ these days). I also have fairly specific visual styles that I prefer when it comes to cinema, most of which I can’t entirely describe (because I haven’t taken the time to think about it – could be an interesting blog post one day?). I can say that this film fell distinctly into one of them. If it had been less good looking I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much but I can see myself watching this several more times, and drooling over the beautiful visuals again and again. Some of the CGI/effects were a little OTT (but not jarring) and the small creatures I’ve forgot the name of looked a bit too much like the big-eyed TY Beanies for my taste (though Belle’s playful teasing of them was charming). But just so beautiful, overall. I honestly wanted to cry at how beautiful is is (did I mention I’m really affected by the aesthetic qualities of things?)

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I wish more movies looked like this (but, then, would it become less exciting?). Not Surreal, because that word is always misused. It was more than reality. Hyperreal. But still a little bit fake.The scenery looked like matte paintings from old technicolor films. The colours were sumptuous. And then there’s the costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud. It looked exactly like I think a fairy tale film ought to.

The wikipedia article on the French critics’ response describes what I felt in a more succinct way (and the references are spot on):

They praised the colours and contrasts of the landscape, which they said recalled the work of American painter Maxfield Parrish, and the visual style, which they compared to films by Mario Bava and Tsui Hark.

la_belle_et_la_bete_pixIn terms of content, I would’ve liked more development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship. I like the use of Belle’s dreams to find out more about the Beast’s life as a human (and, with one issue I shan’t go into, I loved the reason he became the Beast) but there was still a large jump, for me, from Belle being scared of the Beast to being in love with him. I think if she had been less scared of him or they had spent more time together, I’d have found it less unsettling and not too quick. I think there will always be uncomfortable elements in the relationship between Belle and the Beast but many people have gone over these and I shan’t rehash it. It is still a story I (and obviously many others) find compelling, which is very interesting to me. Something to ponder.

There definitely could have been more for Seydoux to do but we got a feel for her character, despite that. Most of her character came through in the scenes with her family, especially with her father, but we still see both her loyalty and playfulness when she’s at the castle. The ending of the film was lovely and immensely satisfying (after a vaguely frightening confrontation between the ‘baddies’ and some giant statues, which were once the Beast’s pals). It’s right up there with Ever After for endings of fairy tale films for me.

I doubt this film will be to everyone’s tastes but anyone with an interest in fairy tales (even if it is one of the many we see over and over again), costume design nerds and anyone with an appreciation of a beautiful looking film ought to see it.