On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing.
Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: Once Upon a Time, in a Far Away Land, the Vibes Were Fucked
I’m a simple man with simple political views: I believe the United States government should take all of its pageantry cues for state events from the film “Donkey Skin.” Dead presidents should be laid to rest inside a giant glass Christmas ornament. White House staffers should be required to paint themselves red or blue to reflect the party in power. And the Speaker of the House should preside over congress while sitting on a giant stuffed cat. It shouldn’t be controversial to anyone who has been lucky enough to watch “Donkey Skin,” because no fictional cinematic government has ever come with more entertaining vibes.
Jacques Demy’s wild musical fantasy from 1970 can be succinctly described as “Cinderella with attempted incest,” telling the story of a beautiful princess who goes undercover as a donkey to shield herself from her father’s marriage proposals. Once her fairy godmother transforms her into an allegedly hideous entity known as Donkey Skin (she’s still hot, but now has a donkey carcass on her back — a look that seems destined to pop up at a Balenciaga show) she becomes a lowly servant for a wicked woman before catching the attention of a prince. But while the actual plot is largely faithful to conventional fairy tale dramatic structure (it’s an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s book of the same name from 1695), Demy’s liberal use of psychedelic images and anachronistic jokes turns “Donkey Skin” into a timeless midnight movie delight.
Once you get past the incest, the predictability of the story makes it easier to immerse yourself in the glorious weirdness that Demy was nice enough to conjure up for us. This is a movie that’s best enjoyed by zoning out and simply basking in the insanity. The combination of practical craftsmanship and Technicolor cinematography makes the strange kingdom look like what might have happened if Powell and Pressburger had directed the Bee Gees-led “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie. A donkey-clad princess sings a duet with herself while baking something called a “love cake.” And there’s a dress that everyone insists is the unclassifiable “color of weather” despite just being fucking blue.
Most cinephiles will tell you that “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is Demy’s finest Technicolor musical, and I won’t bother to argue with them. But while that film is an indisputable classic, did it feature a jolly little number about incest that seamlessly works the phrase “tainted offspring” into a song that otherwise could have come straight from Tin Pan Alley? How about a scullery maid who spits out frogs every time she speaks? Or a grifting song-and-dance man trying to peddle fraudulent “gazelle milk” to maidens hoping to shrink their fingers? I think not. —CZ
The Aftermath: This Shit Is So Gay
Not since my last trip to a lesbian bar have I witnessed so many women obsessing about their hand size. And not since my last trip to a gay bar have I seen a man so easily duped by a fairy in a translucent caftan. “Donkey Skin” is the exact kind of uber-stylish, uber-silly fringe delight that belongs on a list of The Gayest Movies That Aren’t Actually Gay. And reader, you have my word: As IndieWire’s Curation Editor/Resident List Girl, I can promise “Peau d’âne” will appear on our gay-but-not-gay ranking sometime very soon.
Sure, this ode to treasure-shitting equine centers primarily on the fraught practice of heterosexual marriage. But between the King playing Celestial Project Runway with a bunch of Blue Man Group extras and The Lilac Fairy’s iconic run for the title of French New Wave’s Craftiest Bitch, this tale of a daughter desperately trying to get out of marrying her dad couldn’t be gayer than if it included a same-sex smooch.
In crafting this lush, ornate world of body-painted background nudists and sporadically carpeted ceiling tiles, Demy’s aesthetic direction seems best summed up as something like, “Think Parisian Liberace, but more medieval and straddling this giant, feathery, white cat thing I got.” And in driving its emotions, the writer/director seems once again motivated by the (very gay) notion that more is more is more is better is happy is good.
At first, there’s an endearing earnestness in the King’s devotion to only remarrying when he finds a woman more beautiful than Brunette Catherine Deneuve. But when that turns out to be Blonde Catherine Deneuve (it is a known fact of the male gaze that you must have One of Each), you can’t help but fear this is not what his wife meant! Incest accusations are too often wielded as homophobic insults by the bigoted, horny, and bored, but a misunderstanding this willfully dramatic is inarguably and extraordinarily gay. That the Queen made time to play a round of toxic mind games (“But like, if we break up, would you date someone hotter than me?”) before saying something cryptic and passing out is, similarly, quite gay.
The fairy tale logic of Demy’s Big Sleeves-meets-Bigger Sleeves romance not only scratches my “Are you seeing this?” itch, but it provides ample fodder for picking apart the sorts of gleefully queer, midnight movie mysteries I love. With the Banker turned into an oversized, ’70s Kigurumi, what was the King doing for money? And if Donkey Skin had never heard of batteries, why was no one in the entire kingdom phased by the arrival of a whole-ass helicopter? And did Delphine Seyrig actually look fucking fantastic in yellow — or was that just me?
Fabulous, bewildering, and very French, “Donkey Skin” feels closest to “Diamantino” in past IndieWire After Dark installments, offering the rare treat of a midnight movie with a happy ending. Well, happy-ish. Family dinners between The King of Incest, Lavender Lady Macbeth, Donkey Skin, and Lord Farquaad will be pretty awkward after this. Oh, that’s gay too. —AF
Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Donkey Skin” on the Criterion Channel. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…
- Need to Break Up? ‘The One I Love’ Will Ruin Your Relationship This Labor Day Weekend
- ‘Kuso’ Is Pure Cinematic Jazz That Just So Happens to Include Full Frontal Nudity and Talking Boils
- ‘Parents’ Is the Middling ’80s Cannibalism Classic Worth Reheating — Again and Again