Donkey Skin (review)

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It’s not really appropriate for kids, this French fairy tale — the subtitles will try their patience — but grownups enchanted by Disney’s Beauty & the Beast (and The Princess Bride) will delight in it. Disney’s animated musical fantasy owes a lot, in fact, to this live-action one: director Jacques Demy gave a classic story from Charles Perrault, the 17th-century author of Cinderella, a French New Wave spin that opened up the genre to new interpretations and a new maturity. The film, from 1970, bursts with wild colors, a simmering sexuality, and a Broadway-style score (by Michel Legrand) — this is a sumptuous experience, emotionally, visually, and aurally. (The picture and sound are lovely, by the way — the movie has been digitally restored and remastered.) A radiant Catherine Deneuve (Dangerous Liaisons) plays a young princess who disguises herself in the skin of her father the king’s (Jean Marais) beloved donkey in order to escape a rather inappropriate marriage; while living in a hut in the forest and working as a scullion, she entrances a lonely prince (Jacques Perrin: The Chorus (Les Choristes)) who sees through the deception to the lovely young woman underneath. Everyone else, of course, thinks he’s crazy to have fallen for a girl who smells like a donkey. The fairy godmother who holds a grudge is very French, a wily manipulator of men, but most of the whimsical touches have a chimerical universality: talking flowers, singing parrots (“Love love I love you so,” one trills), a hag who spits frogs. The mind-blowing surprise at the end, though, launches the film into a whole new stratosphere of fantasy.

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