‘Donkey Skin’ and ‘The Princess Bride’: Camp Fairytales and Allowing Ourselves to Surrender to Our Childish Imaginations

There is something so gentle about imagination in its purest form. With no rules or conventions to follow, it can take you anywhere, let you be anyone, or anything. Both Donkey Skin and The Princess Bride are boundless in their possession of such untainted creativity. They shine in a good-for-the-soul, unrestrained-of-any-worldly-limits sort of way. Embracing concepts of camp and fairy tale to a freeing degree, both of these films take great pleasure in the unordinary and fantastical, while still exploring themes of great psychological depth. 

Jacques Demy, long known for his prismatic musicals, adapted Peau d’Âne, or Donkey Skin, from the fairy tale Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault — a tale about a widowed king (Jean Marais) who determines he must marry his young daughter (Catherine Deneuve), as she is the only woman as virtuous and fair as his now-deceased wife. When confronted with his proposal, the princess steals away from the castle and into the woods, where her glimmering, mythical godmother, the lilac fairy (Delphine Seyrig), dries her tears. She instructs the princess to demand a series of three impossible dresses from her father as conditions of their potential marriage: one the color of weather, one the color of the moon, and one the color of the sun.

When the king fulfills each of her conditions, presenting each lustrous, ostentatious dress, the princess makes one final request: the skin of her father’s gem-expelling donkey. Believing she will marry him, the king does as she asks. Using the donkey skin as a disguise, she covers her face in ash and slips away during the night with nothing but her fairy godmother’s wand. From its opening notes, Demy establishes that nothing is impossible in this world — not an old woman who spits frogs from her mouth every few seconds, wisdom-spouting roses, or a song being created about the supposed ugliness of the princess. 

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Entertainment One Films

A young prince (Jacques Perrin) finds the princess, now called Donkey Skin by the people in her village, sitting in her solar dress and brushing her endlessly golden locks. Falling into immediate infatuation (because of course) he cannot think of anyone but her once he returns to his castle. Unwilling to expose her identity, the princess remains, muck-covered, in the village. The prince plunges into a depressive state as his infatuation grows into an obsession… grows into something like love. He refuses to eat, stand, or leave his room. He claims that the only thing that will make him feel normal is a cake from the girl they call Donkey Skin. 

Demy’s commitment to contrast, color, and camp creates desperately gorgeous visuals.  Everything about Donkey Skin is kitschy, surreal, extravagant, and wildly decadent. Costumes, while decently accurate to 17th-century clothing, are composed of bold, psychedelic colors, gaudy jewels, and bigger balloon sleeves than one can imagine. Horses and people alike are painted from head to toe in the brightest blues and most flaming reds to represent their kingdoms. Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who also worked with Demy on The Young Girls of Rochefort, navigates such monumental fantasy with ease. Abundant and plentiful, Donkey Skin sparkles in a manner that is difficult to truly describe. 

As Demy is prone to do, Donkey Skin explores the darkness within storybook romance: an innocent love which is perhaps not so innocent after all. The infatuation between the prince and princess is sweet and radiant but not devoid of certain realities. Even the very concept of the princess having to run away to escape her father’s incestuous demands of marriage is rather intense. 

In a similar vein, The Princess Bride explores the objectifying truths of a fairytale marriage, as Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) is immediately stripped of her agency once she marries Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). The idea that becoming a princess is always magical is quickly overturned, as Buttercup is consumed by her own emptiness and depression immediately following her forced engagement to Humperdink. 

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20th Century Fox

Also adapted from a novel, The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner, follows the tale of Buttercup and Westley. Buttercup, a humble girl who grew up on a farm, becomes an unwilling princess at the hand of Prince Humperdink, and then gets kidnapped by a criminal mastermind named Vizzini (Wallace Shawn). Her love, Westley (Cary Elwes), a rather plain farmhand, leaves to find his fortune, and under mysterious circumstances (supposed death by the Dread Pirate Roberts) never returns… until he does. Chasing behind Buttercup’s kidnappers, winning them over, or defeating them one by one, Westley terrifies Buttercup, who she believes is the Dread Pirate Roberts. She only realizes who he truly is when he screams “as you wish,” as they both tumble down the side of an absurdly tall hill to escape Prince Humperdink. 

While the massively beloved The Princess Bride is less overtly exorbitant than Donkey Skin, it is deeply exaggerated, overdone camp that is absolute perfection. The Princess Bride is stuffed with ironies, hyperboles, absurd names, perfect satire, an infinite collection of thought-out insults, and the most fantastic pickup line of all time: “Please consider me an alternative to suicide.” There are Cliffs of Insanity, fire swamps, patches of lightning sand, and torture chambers only accessible via tree — all equally entertaining as the helicopter that appears in the middle of Donkey Skin. A film powered by unbridled imagination and unobstructed creativity, The Princess Bride truly surrenders to storytelling.

Westley and Buttercup are as familiar with the unfairness and cruel truth of life as they are with themselves –– Buttercup is quite literally depressed for at least half of the film (she refuses to eat for four days). The ability to evoke such an innocent fairy tale of unfettered childish fantasies, while still engaging in a discussion of emotional and philosophical depth is not something to be discounted. With no conventions to follow, The Princess Bride is as free and whimsical as any one thing can be, and it is absolutely just as engaging for adults as it is for children. 

The Princess Bride and Donkey Skin allow us to revel with abandon in the most dreamy and sweet segments of our imaginations: to commit to magic, glitter, and wonder in an intellectually and emotionally stimulating manner. They teach us lessons of delight and encourage us to embrace the absurdly effusive camp aesthetics that began in Marie Antoinette’s Versailles. They remind us to question the true structure of fairytales and the placement of women as princesses to be collected. Perhaps most importantly, they encourage us to “have fun storming the castle!” 

Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who is currently getting a Bachelor of Arts in English with a focus on film studies. Always aspiring to possess the energy of Rachel Weisz in The Favourite and was once described as having a 90s Kate Moss vibe. Her favorite films include Carol, Donkey Skin, Annihilation, and Persona.

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