In this lovingly crafted, wildly eccentric adaptation of a classic French fairy tale, Jacques Demy casts Catherine Deneuve as a princess who must go into hiding as a scullery maid in order to fend off an unwanted marriage proposal—from her own father, the king (Jean Marais). A topsy-turvy riches-to-rags fable with songs by Michel Legrand, Donkey Skin creates a tactile fantasy world that’s perched on the border between the earnest and the satiric, and features Delphine Seyrig in a delicious supporting role as a fashionable fairy godmother.
Donkey Skin, film number five in Criterion’s box set The Essential Jacques Demy, is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. The dual-layer Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer while the DVD delivers a standard-definition version, enhanced for widescreen televisions, on the dual-layer DVD.
Though a fairy tale this film oddly comes off as the dreariest looking one in the set, even compared to the next film, the darker (in tone) Une chambre en ville. It still has its fair share of flourishes with costumes and even make-up: most if not all of the King’s servants are painted blue, as are a number of horses (some have even been dyed red.) These colours are certainly bright and vibrant, leaping off of the screen, particularly the reds in some later sequences. Saturation levels are very good, and black levels are fairly rich without crushing. But a good chunk of the film is fairly drab and flat, primarily in its settings and backgrounds. Obviously this is all by design mind you, and not an issue with the transfer, but after the previous two colour films, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, this admittedly took me by surprise.
Other areas of the digital transfer are all very strong: detail level is superb, there are no obvious artifacts, and film grain remains naturally rendered. The DVD’s transfer even holds up rather well, though fine object detail isn’t as precise. It also still suffers from compression issues, though they’re fairly mild.
Despite the shock of the film having a duller look in comparison to the other colour films in the set it’s yet another excellent transfer, making it obvious that Lola’s hideous presentation was simply an anomaly.
The film comes with a 5.1 surround track but it’s a fairly low key one. I didn’t notice much in the way of direction other than some ambient noise and the film’s music. Otherwise everything is pretty much centered up front. Audio quality is excellent, with dialogue sounding crisp and clean as does the music. I didn’t notice any distortion.
The Blu-ray presents the audio on DTS-HD MA while the DVD presents it in Dolby Digital.
In regards to supplements this is one of the weaker titles in the set.
Like the other titles Criterion has rounded up an archival episode of a French television show, this time a 12-minute clip from a 1970 episode of Pour le cinema. This one features interviews with Demy, Deneuve, and Merais, all talking about the film, the fantasy element (Demy was really channeling Cocteau here, with Merais being the ultimate reference to Beauty and the Beast,) and the film’s “slightly incestuous” undertone. There’s some great behind-the-scenes footage thrown in making it a decent piece on the making-of the film.
”Donkey Skin” Illustrated looks to be something ported from another release, I’m assuming from overseas. It’s a 2008 visual essay of sorts on the various adaptations and illustrations of the fairy tale. It runs 11-minutes and proves to be fairly fascinating.
Also ported over is probably one of the more useless features in the entire Demy box set: ”Donkey Skin” and the Thinkers, a 17-minute discussion, also from 2008, between film critic Camille Taboulay, psycho analysts Lucille Durrmeyer and Jean-Claude Polack, and 17th Century literary specialist Liliane Picciola. Basically this feature feels like a sort of defense of the film, as though it was added to block off any charges of promoting incest that may follow this release, sort of like how Disney would append Leonard Maltin introductions to some of the cartoon shorts on their collections to deflect accusations of racism, sexism, or promoting smoking. Here they talk about how the film and story would be viewed by a child, who more than likely would see nothing wrong with the story, and then how it may be viewed differently by an adult. They talk about the story and then the film specifically, how each presents its themes and possible psychological implications therein, with some disagreements between them on some subjects. As a whole they all seem to love the film. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of a point to the feature, other than it being an opportunity for some scholars to spew some uninteresting psychoanalytical babble back and forth and using some questionable terms (like calling a child’s fascination with farts and other bodily functions their “anal period.”) I didn’t find much of value to the package.
Much, much better is an interview with Jacques Demy at the American Film Institute, recorded in 1971. An audio only feature, Demy, in English, talks about how he works with his actors and composer Michel Legrand. He talks about Umbrellas of Cherbourg, going over the difficulties in getting it made initially (all material covered in other features spread throughout the set) and he does get into Donkey Skin as well since at this point it would have been his latest film. He finally talks about his influences (American musicals are an obvious one) and how his love of film developed, which sounds to have started when he saw Les visiteurs du soir. It’s a great open discussion with the director and amazingly feels very brief at 42-minutes.
Though that last feature ends the supplements on a good note the supplements as a whole are underwhelming in comparison to the supplements found elsewhere in the set.
The supplements are disappointing overall but the presentation is at least excellent. One of the more middling editions in Criterion’s Demy box set.