The past few years have seen a resurgence in live action films inspired by fairy tales, including Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror and Angelina Jolie in Disney’s Maleficent. It’s easy to see the commercial appeal of adapting these classic stories: they have the perfect combination of globally recognised characters with no living author to appease (or pay), giving the film-makers free reign in adaptation, as well as fulsome opportunities to use the full range of digital effects. Here’s the trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman:
Fairy tales are tricky to transfer to the screen, though. Although they appear cinematic — they offer strong, clear stories with obvious goodies and baddies, startling images and of course the opportunity for magic — their narratives are often thin, their characters simplistic, their logic closer to dreams than the (often over-worked) three act structure of contemporary Hollywood films. When you try to stretch a fairytale to the two hours plus runtime of today’s blockbuster movies it’s no wonder that, for all their digital wizardry, these slender stories tend to snap.
But there is of course another tradition of fairy-tale film-making, one that embraces the dreaminess of the originals and exposes their curious morals, to often disquieting effect. This includes Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves (from the revisionist fairy tales of Angela Carter) and Jacques Demy’s Peau d’Âne (Donkey Skin). Reuniting him with Catherine Deneuve, it’s the story of a princess whose father promises her mother, on her deathbed, that he won’t marry again until he finds someone even more beautiful. After extensive research, the king despairs: none of the available princesses even approaches his beloved wife’s beauty — until one of his advisors presents him with a portrait of a young woman even more lovely: his own daughter. The princess is understandably reluctant. (This is what’s known as understatement). She consults her fairy godmother — who has her own motivations, we’ll discover — and they hatch a plan together to evade this awful fate.
To reveal any more would count as spoilers, but if I tell you that it involves killing a donkey that shits gold you’ll begin to understand what a strange and fascinating film this is. Like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Demy’s film feels like both a straightforward telling of the tale and a literary criticism of it, simultaneously revelling in its gorgeous images and questioning their motives and morals. Unlike Cocteau it also continually comments on its own (ravishing) artificiality, simultaneously drawing you in while pushing you away. After all, for all the darkness at its centre, how seriously should anyone take a king who sits on this throne:
If that makes Donkey Skin sound like more of an academic exercise than a movie, it’s also full of good jokes, beautiful images and songs by Michel Legrand (although it’s fair to say that they’re not his best work). And of course there’s Deneuve, as cooly beautiful as ever, as well as Cocteau’s muse (and former Beast) Jean Marais as the King and a deliciously self-centred Delphine Seyrig as the mischievous Lilac Fairy. Less haunting than La Belle et La Bete, less troubling than Company of Wolves, this is still a fairy tale that captures the spirit of its source and adds its own, very contemporary delights.