Once upon a time in a magical kingdom, there lived in a castle a king (Jean Marais) and his beautiful queen (Catherine Deneuve) who had an equally beautiful daughter, the princess (Deneuve again). Life was good, and the king would enjoy get-togethers in the courtyard, where the princess would play her organ and his pet donkey had pride of place due to its ability to shit gold and jewels. However, the happiness couldn't last forever, and sadly the queen took ill and died, but before she passed away, she made the king promise to remarry to the most lovely princess he could find. Now the search was on for the monarch to win a new queen, but all the prospective princesses were too old or too ugly, so who would the king eventually choose?
Well, there's a rather unsavoury answer to that question in this, writer and director Jacques Demy's adaptation of a Charles Perrault fairy tale, known in English as Donkey Skin, that is one of the author's lesser known, at least in Britain. It's a brightly coloured, almost gaudy film, with horses and actors painted blue (and red, in some cases), and Deneuve in a succession of glamorous gowns, with the other actors wearing very big clothes depending on their social status - Marais, for one, seems to be adorned with giant, purple chicken wings to put his arms through. The atmosphere of innocent magic is carefully sustained, but not so much in an exaggerated way as a playful emphasis on the flights of fancy that run throughout the story.
So, who does the king choose to marry? Erm, his own daughter, the princess; and you thought the donkey was weird. She is understandably reluctant and on hearing of his intentions hurries off to see her fairy godmother (a very amusing Delphine Seyrig) for assistance. The godmother doesn't like the sound of this, and bears a grudge against the king for unexplained reasons, so comes up with ways to put him off - make the princess more dresses. First a dress the colour of the weather (which has clouds constantly moving across it - how did they do that?), then when she turns that down, a dress more sparkling than the Moon, which is also rejected, and finally a dress that glows like the sun. The princess secretly loves all these frocks, and is beginning to warm to her father's suggestion, so the godmother comes up with a more radical solution - skin the donkey, wear its pelt, and become a scullion.
Just as it looks as if the film will turn into an examination of the queasier side of any attraction fathers may have for their grown-up daughters, it moves away from anything too heavy to teaching the princess, who isn't exactly a spoiled brat, a lesson about humility and how not everything in life is easy. She is put in the employ of a mad old woman who spits frogs, and made to carry out the most menial tasks while wearing her donkey skin - and that's what the villagers call her too, treating her like dirt. Luckily, the godmother has given the princess a wand so she can magically adorn her hovel, and wouldn't you know it? A prince charming falls in love with her after seeing her as she really is, but is unable to persuade anyone that she is the woman for him. Odd details, like a talking rose, are frequent, a little self-aware humour is there too (the godmother saying her batteries are run down - the princess asking what a battery is), and Peau d'Ane is a strange but enchanting experience, even if you grow impatient when the radiant Deneuve isn't on the screen. Music by Michel Legrand - did I mention this was a musical as well? Watch out for the helicopter.