Jacques Demy's Peau d’Âne is a glorious, and very faithful in terms of the story, recreation of Charles Perrault's fairy story Peau d’Âne (1694), said to be the first French fairy story ever.
A king's wife dies, telling him (Jean Marais) that he must marry a woman more beautiful than her. In order for a male to follow, the king is under pressure, but can find no beautiful new queen: the only person is his daughter (Catherine Deneuve). The princess is horrified at the thought (of incest presumably) and seeks help from her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), who comes up with several suberfuges to avoid the marraige and in the end finds one: the princess says she'll marry her father if he brings her the skin of the ass whose droppings are gems and gold coins that have been making the kingdom rich. Amazingly, the king agrees and lays the skin on her bed while she's sleeping.
The godmother then wakes the princess up, tells her to put on the ass's skin as a disguise, and to leave the castle using one of her magic wands. Incognito, the princess finds a tumbledown cabin in the woods in which to live and finds work as servant to a female witch who spits toads. Then the handsome prince of a neighbouring kingdom (Jacques Perrin), sexually frustrated because he can find no one to love, wanders in the wood and sees a rose (with the princess's lips) who tells him not to give up: he then sees the beautiful princess in her humble cabin dressed her finery and is smitten.
The prince learns that the girl's name is Peau d’Âne, and from then on takes to his bed, lovestruck. His parents are in despair until the prince asks for Peau d’Âne to bake him a cake, which she does, and includes her precious ring, which he nearly chokes on. After announcing that he will marry the woman the ring fits, this is an excuse for every quack and mountebank to sell love potions, but eventually – after every nubile woman has tried on the ill-fitting ring – along comes Peau d’Âne, a perfect fit, who then throws down her animal clothing to reveal a princess.
Whereupon, all the princes in the world converge on the realm, including the neighbouring king, who appears – several centuries out of time – in a helicopter with the princess's godmother, who is to be the king's new wife.
The bare bones of the story are perhaps a bit of a yawn, but on the other hand the sheer colour in the film is a feast: bright, garish, the contrasts between the red faces of the servants and the red horses in the princess's world and the blueness of the prince's world, for instance, are very notable. As of course is the music, which echoes that of the two previous films of Demy's in which Catherine Deneuve appeared in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Several châteaux were used in the film: Chambord, Plessis-Bourré, Neuville (Yvelines), and Pierrefonds (Oise).
Apart from the obvious anachronism of the helicopter, there are several quotations from times after Perrault, an influence by Cocteau, a reference of course to the flower power of the sixties, the prince's desire to be free from parental restrictions, etc. Even the cake itself which the prince eats is a reference to the 'space cake' (laced with cannabis) that Demy and Varda took: for the end of the seventeenth century, this is a very hippie film.