Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Ribbon of Dreams - Jacques Demy's Peau d'Ane...

A "ribbon of dreams" was the description Jacques Demy made of his work; reels of film filled with fantasy, fate, flashbacks to youth and fairytale. Whereas his first films were in sober black and white, trademark of the French New Wave cinematic style, the musical outbursts marked these as works "en-chantés" - a play on words meaning both enchanting and literally sung
This magical quality was further enhanced by Demy's incredible later use of brilliant colour so that each scene, however mundane, bursts from the screen in technicolour vibrancy. Tones of colour were set to contrast, clash and complement each other in order to create a universe that seems to vibrate with life and further stimulate our senses. This strange tension is continued by the bizarre contradictions in content and chronological context and subtle cinematic references which are thread through Demy's work. 
Perhaps the two most famous, or easily cited films from Jacques Demy's early career are Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). Both of these works star Catherine Deneuve, whose talent had already been recognized by Roger Vadim, and would soon be confirmed by her work with Roman Polanski and Luis Buñuel. However, both Demy films were very far removed from the dark, oppressive worlds portrayed by these other directors. In a style reminiscent of that of the heyday of technicolour Hollywood musicals we see Catherine Deneuve singing and dancing in Les Parapluies and alongside her sister, Françoise Dorléac, in Les Demoiselles. 
 I remember watching Les Parapluies when I was supposed to be revising for 'O' Level French, and having great trouble trying to make out anything!
However, my favourite Jacques Demy film, again featuring his fetish actress Catherine Deneuve, is the later film, Peau d'Ane (1970). Here all the Demy traits are woven together to create a work unlike any other; a fairytale that truly is a ribbon of dreams.
 Peau d'Ane was produced by Demy after an extended stay in the US during the 1960's where he was influenced by the colourful popular culture. In homage to his homeland with its rich culture, folklore and history in general, Demy set about creating a unique interpretation of the well-known Charles Perrault (1628-1703) fairytale Peau d'Ane - The Magic Donkey. As all such tales, there is a dark psychological undertone running through the story, supposedly preparing children for the harsher realities of life, or warning them of the need to conform to certain norms, against all adversity. Peau d'Ane is no different with its message that you must create your own fate, and not give in to the dictates of others, despite the lure of security, inappropriate love, or great wealth. In this fairytale, the unsettling theme is that of the incestuous love of a widowed king for his own daughter, blind in his determination to marry her. Demy added bizarre notes to his interpretation that made it all the more disconcerting. 
Indeed, this dark, heavy subject is run through in luminous, vivid backdrops and set to a light, whimsical musical score. Apparently Jacques Demy had initially considered using Brigitte Bardot and Anthony Perkins (of Psycho fame) for the keys roles of Peau d'Ane and her Prince Charming. This would surely have given an extra element of unease to the film, but even without, the film has a beautiful 'weirdness' on every level which makes it timeless. 
  With its once-upon-a-time style of opening, the film begins as the pages of the weighty tome of fairy tales turn in front of us. And so do the strange tensions. The delicate opening score, written by Michel Legrand, creates a lyrical magic that seems to descend as it progresses, jumping down from one octave to another. This will be the theme to the main song, Amour, amour sung by Catherine Deneuve and proves to be almost impossible to get out of your mind after watching the film, but virtually impossible to sing correctly, with or without the lyrics! 
                                      Amour, amour
                            L'amour se porte autour du cou, le coeur est fou.
                                           Quatre bras serrés qui s'enchaînent, l'âme sereine.
                                           Comme un foulard de blanche laine,
                                           L'amour s'enroule et puis se noue.
                                           Amour, amour, m'a rendu fou.
                            L'amour fait souvent grand tapage au plus bel âge.
                                           Il crie, il déchire et il ment, pauvre serment.
                                           Il fait souffrir tous les amants
                                           Qui n'ont pas su tourner la page.
                                           Amour, amour, n'est pas bien sage.
                            Quand il a vécu trop longtemps le coeur content
                                           L'amour à la moindre anicroche s'effiloche,
                                           Au clou du souvenir s'accroche.
                                           L'amour se meurt avec le temps.
                                           Amour, amour, je t'aime tant.
                                           Amour, amour, je t'aime tant...
Any excuse to use this photo - I love the colours of the anemones...
Within the beautiful castle, this uneasy mood continues as nature invades as ivy grows to form wild fairytale canopies and hangings in the living spaces. Indeed, some inanimate objects come to life, as in the animate statues which are used in homage to La Belle et La Bête (1946) by Jean Cocteau and a huge throne in the shape of a white cat! Outside the castle, nature too is tainted with the fairytale universe as the royal steeds are of vermillion red, servants are blue, pet deer strut around, while peacocks parade and parrots serenade in their squawking manner.
Well, there were actually anemones on the film poster...
More importantly, the castle possesses a donkey that produces jewels and gold in place of dung! Unfortunately the harmony of this enchanted realm is about to be broken on the death of the queen, setting in motion the sequence of events that leads to the emergence of Peau d'Ane, the eventual death of the donkey, deprived of its skin, and the financial ruin of the king, relieved of his money-making means!
The donkey skin
Like the death of the mother in Snow White, the queen's demise leaves a father vulnerable to unnatural instincts. On her deathbed, the queen makes the king swear that he will carry out her final wish; that he should marry another, even more beautiful and worthy than her own self. With impressive utterances of the impossibility of finding another spouse more precious than his late wife, the king refuses to respect his promise. However, practicalities such as the need for an heir to the throne and the gnawing desire for conjugal union quickly make the king reconsider. Having decided to take action, the king sets about his duty with great flamboyance and gusto. Jean Marais (main actor in Cocteau's La Belle et La Bête) interprets the king in such a manner that the grotesque irony of the situation seems comic, yet human. Nothing can open his eyes to the inappropriateness of his mission and nothing or no one must stand in his way. However, he had underestimated the grudges women bear, above all in fairy tales, and had overestimated his ability to find a women to meet his criteria. None seem to satisfy his demands, apart from his own daughter, that is...
  Rightly horrified by her father's desire for marriage, the princess seeks council from the good fairy, La Fée Lilas and takes refuge in the enchanted woods. La Fée Lilas (Delphine Seyrig) benefits from the customary fairy attributes; namely an ability to fly and the possession of a magic wand. However, this fairy has little in common with the usual staid, matronly types that offer comfort in classic tales! La Fée Lilas has clearly already had amourous dealings with the king "une histoire ancienne" at some moment in the past, and has not forgotten the fact or forgiven the king. She is now willing to use her magic powers and feminine wiles to 'get the king back', in every sense of the term. She endeavours to help the princess thwart the father's advances ("On n'épouse jamais ses parents")! In so doing, she also wishes distance a potential rival so that she can later claim the king for herself! The film plays with this twist to Jung's Electra Complex as daughter and fairy godmother focus on the father's attentions.
A dress the colour of weather
La Fée Lilas obligingly sets a series of challenges to scupper the king's marriage scheme and free the princess from her filial 'obligation'. As a nuptial gift , the king is told that he must present the princess with a dress which symbolizes the weather in order to satisfy her feminine whims before any marriage can take place.

Both the princess and her fairy godmother are stunned at the beauty of the garment that the king's tailors produce, and are equally troubled at the realisation that the king has overcome the obstacle. 
Undeterred, La Fee Lilas quickly tells the princess to order a far more challenging dress from the king; a dress the colour of the moon. 

While most fairytale princesses would continue to shun the advances of their father, Jacques Demy's princess seems ready to give in to the fatality of the situation, without offering a great deal of resistance. She appears to be won over by her father's love, however improper that may be, and as a dutiful daughter she is eager to fulfill her new filial duty; marriage.

A dress the colour of the moon.
Fortunately even with the arrival of an even more dazzling gown, the fairy does not abandon her charge, and the princess is duly told to demand a dress the colour of the sun. When this task is accomplished to perfection, both women realise that they must demand the ultimate sacrifice from the father. The king must indeed be stripped of his magic source of income as the royal donkey is stripped of its hide - la peau d'âne - in order to present it as a final pre-nuptial offering to the princess. 
Once the king carries out this request, the princess flees the castle on the advice of the fairy, disguised as a slovenly wretch, dressed in the donkey skin. Finding work as a farm hand, Peau d'Ane lives in a dirty hut, far away from prying eyes and above all far from the unwanted attentions of her father. 

Despite the squalor of her living conditions, the princess benefits from the magic touch of her fairy godmother, whose wand transforms the drab and filthy to gold. Yet she still despairs of her situation, and dreams of a Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet and away from her humiliation. Glimmers of the princess' s radiance shine through Peau d'Ane's tawdry, tattered appearance and manage to mesmerize a Prince Charming who is magically drawn to the hovel amongst the trees. 
The bust of a dress the colour of the sun.
Unable to encounter this enchanting figure, mysteriously hidden away, Prince Charming returns to his palace, love-sick and bed-bound. As a remedy to his ailment, his worried parents send an order to Peau d'Ane to cook the prince a dish to cure him of his malady. The resulting cake d'amour is delivered and devoured with great relish and while not cured of his love-sickness the prince is overjoyed to find Peau d'Ane's gold ring inside the mixture.
The dress the colour of the sun.
 Like Cinderella's glass shoe, Peau d'Ane's ring can only fit its rightful owner, and Prince Charming must scour the kingdom to find out the true identity of his love. A long succession of aspiring women present themselves at the palace, all desperate to procure the ring and in so doing secure marriage to the prince. Needless to say, their hopes are dashed. Naturally, in true fairytale fashion, when Peau d'Ane is finally summoned, the golden ring slips on, the animal shroud slips off and Prince Charming meets his princess at last. 
 This arrangement seems to suit all concerned, not least the king who, having abandoned his mission to enter into wedlock with his own daughter, has decided to marry a very contented Fée Lilas. Quickly moving onto his new love interest without so much as a backwards glance, the king resumes a more palatable paternal role. La Fée Lilas, proud of her conquest like a cat who has got the cream, simply cannot resist making a snide remark to the princess who has just heard of her father's union "Tâchez de faire bonne figure!" ("At least make an effort to look pleased..."). And so the story comes to an end as the fairytale book closes once more...
 So far, so fairytale, but Jacques Demy's version wields a far greater hold on its audience than the traditional screen conte de fée adaptation. Peau d'Ane still continues to fascinate decades after its creation, and details catch our attention, or suddenly reveal themselves even after numerous viewings. The film's cinematic effects (dating back to the beginning of the 70's) look quaint and 'clunky' compared to today's flawless yet dull computer-generated images, but this just adds to the magic. The overall effect, faults and all, seems to be richer and more beautiful than the insipid perfection we find nowadays. Perhaps that is partly down to the ironic touches, and knowing winks to the audience which play the past against the present day. 

With La Fée Lilas' slow-motion flight, created by reverse shots Jacques Demy refers back to the classic film La Belle et La Bête, but at other moments he slips in modern anachronistic elements that have strictly no place in any fairy tale! While on the one hand we have a traditional old wretch who repeatedly spits out toads as she speaks and then an enchanting rose that converses with Prince Charming, we also have a fairy who complains about the batteries going flat in her magic wand, a modern-day telephone lurking in the undergrowth and a king who arrives at a wedding celebration by helicopter! The appearance of such sophisticated technology was perhaps intended as yet another play of references since the king, played by actor Jean Marais, was obliged to leave the set each day by aeroplane in order to act in the Palais-Royal in Paris. 
The use of the châteaux of Chambord and Plessis-Bouré also mixed past and present, reality and make-believe since most of the audience would have visited at least one chateau from the Loire valley. Jim Morrison actually turned up to watch the filming at one stage, and can be seen walking around, surrounded by an exotic procession of animals, fairy-tale royalty and the actors themselves. The iconic French comic actor Coluche can even be seen as one of the boisterous peasants in the film, at the beginning of his cinematic career...
However, for me at least, the best aspects of Peau d'Ane have to be the costumes and songs. When I saw that the princess's three dresses, the colour of the weather, the sun and the moon were on show as part of an exhibition devoted to Jacques Demy's art in La Cinémathèque Française in Paris I was thrilled! The whole exhibition was interesting, but the costumes and stage props drew me in the most...
Ladybird Cinderella - First ballgown
I used to love looking at the three ballgowns worn by Cinderella in my Ladybird book when I was little. I could never decide which one was the most beautiful - they all seemed equally stunning. Looking at the same pictures today just doesn't revive the same sense of marvel, although that's probably to be expected, all things considered. However the Peau d'Ane costumes bring that feeling of magic back, as an adult!

Cinderella - Second ballgown

 The dresses exhibited were of course magical - shown off in all their splendour by the lighting and a rotating display that made the gold and silver needlework and rich, jewel-encrusted taffeta sparkle and shine. Catherine Deneuve is said to have remarked on the weight and sheer volume of the garments which made them difficult to wear and must have hampered any movement.

Final ballgown
While the glorious dresses were cumbersome, the princess appears to float around weightlessly and effortlessly, even making the cake d'amour without soiling her voluminous sleeves! Apparently the most uncomfortable costume of all was the donkey skin, made of veritable hide, and above all the donkey's head itself which was especially heavy. So the princess really did suffer as Peau d'Ane... 

The other costumes are equally magical, yet with a strange, exaggerated quality and quaintness, that give them a surreal effect. The bal masqué with the guests at the castle dressed up as cats and birds is beautiful and the wedding ceremony procession crowns the end of the film...

I haven't actually followed the recipe for the cake d'amour, but it could be worth a try... 

                                                   Recette pour un cake d'amour
                                       Préparez votre
                                                   Préparez votre pâte
                                                   Dans une jatte,
                                                   Dans une jatte plate
                                                   Et sans plus de discours, allumez votre
                                                   Allumez votre four.
                                      Prenez de la
                                                   Prenez de la farine
                                                   Versez dans la
                                                   Versez dans la terrine
                                                   Quatre mains bien pesées autour d'un puits creu-
                                                   Autour d'un puits creusé.
                                                   Choisissez quatre
                                                   Choisissez quatre oeufs frais
                                                   Qu'ils soient du ma-
                                                   Qu'ils soient du matin frais
                                                   Car à plus de vingt jours, un poussin sort tou-
                                                   Un poussin sort toujours.
                                      Un bol entier
                                                   Un bol entier de lait
                                                   Bien crémeux s'il-
                                                   Bien crémeux s'il-vous-plaît.
                                                   De sucre parsemez et vous amalga-
                                                   Et vous amalgamez. Une main de
                                                   Une main de beurre fin.
                                                   Un souffle de
                                                   Un souffle de levain.
                                                   Une larme de miel et un soupçon de
                                                   Et un soupçon de sel.
                                       Il est temps à
                                                   Il est temps à présent,
                                                   Tandis que vous
                                                   Tandis que vous brassez
                                                    De glisser un présent pour votre fian-
                                                    Pour votre fiancé.
                                                    Un souhait d'a-
                                                    Un souhait d'amour s'impose
                                                    Tandis que la
                                                    Que la pâte repose.
                                                    Graissez la plat de beurre et laissez cuire une
                                                    El laissez cuire une heure.