Donkey Skin is an amusing eccentricity that sits between the surrealist experimentalism of the New Wave directors and a classic fairytale. If one wanted to look to similar films, you could perhaps consider the gonzo fairytale that we saw in More Than a Miracle/Cinderella Italian Style (1967). You could perhaps also see something of Jean Cocteaus Beauty and the Beast (1946) and to reinforce the Beauty and the Beast connection, Demy casts Jean Marais, Cocteaus Beast and real-life gay lover, as the king although not really. Cocteau was more interested in touching the pureness of the fairytale, Jacques Demy just wants to have offbeat fun. Donkey Skin does occasionally touch basis with Cinderella the princess does lead a life as a scullery person for a time, there is a kingdom-wide search for the person that wears a ring (as opposed to a slipper) but the story is also widely variant.
The film is designed with the colourful extravagance of something like Barbarella (1968). The servants in the princesss castle come with their faces painted blue even the horses are painted blue while by contrast the princes courtiers are painted in red. The castle comes with bizarre sets where ivy grows on the inside walls there is even a blue nude wound into the ivy. The dead queen is buried on a bed of roses inside a giant glass snowglobe. The throne is crafted like a white cat. Or the prince and princesss romance through a field filled with sheep, blossoms, laden banquet tables waited on by a livery man wearing an animals head mask and down a river on a boat covered in flowers and burning braziers. The film is filled with all manner of wacky touches the donkey whose skin the princess takes is one that excretes coins and jewels; at one point, we get a book of poetry from the future (ie. contemporary poetry). The end of the film surreally has Jean Maraiss king and the fairy godmother fly in by helicopter to attend the wedding.
The small problem is that Jacques Demy is making Donkey Skin with a far lesser resources to hand than something like Barbarella. With a little more in the way of budget, Donkey Skin could have flown with a real extravagance. As it is, it looks B-budgeted in terms of its imagination. The elements of fantasy come with a simple magic the dresses the colour of the weather and the sun simply have had natural scenery projected onto them. In one slightly tatty effect, Delphine Seyrigs Fairy Godmother visits the princess by entering through the ceiling, which is represented by her tearing her way through a sheet of coloured paper and then the same footage run in reverse for when she ascends. There is a beautifully dreamy sequence where Catherine Deneuve escapes from the palace running in slow-motion as the gates open in front of her, discovering a waiting carriage lined with white feathers that takes off through the air. When morning comes, she finds herself sleeping on a bed of hay on the back of a cart and passes through the village where all the villagers stand frozen in time to meet an old lady who disconcertingly coughs up frogs while talking to her. There is a lovely score from Michel Legrand, although this does contain some songs that slow the show down.
In the end, Donkey Skin is a film with eccentric charms and some occasional visual poetry. That perhaps is the sum of it, rather than it being a great work. It never sweeps us up in the romance or the drama. Even the initial menace of the amorous father is forgotten about as soon as Catherine Deneuve escapes from the palace and he just reconciles with her at the end with all that has transpired seemingly forgotten.