Valerie and Her Week of Wonders Review
Watching Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders, I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of stuffy old censors in late '60s Czechoslovakia choking on their borscht in shock at Jaromil Jireš' thoroughly off-kilter coming-of-age film. Based on a surrealist novel from the 1940s by Vítězslav Nezval – a staunch communist even under Stalin – I imagine they may have expected something a little less gleefully outlandish.
Released in 1970 and considered the final film of the Czech New Wave, Valerie is a fantastical collision of Alice in Wonderland, gothic horror and light erotica. One could describe it as a Hammer flick directed by Fellini or Buñuel, but that really wouldn’t do it any kind of justice.
Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is 13 years-old and has just started having periods (symbolised by the drops of blood we see on a flower early in the film), a step into adulthood which totally transforms her perception of the world and sets us off on a fairy-tale adventure featuring quite a few vampires, magical earrings, a paedophile priest, a woman who might be her grandma, mother or cousin (or perhaps all three), a lesbian tryst, possible incest, and so much pagan imagery it's a surprise Edward Woodward doesn’t turn up to be burnt alive in a wicker man. The entire thing is almost certainly a dream and is gloriously, giddily confusing.
Anti-religious (specifically anti-Catholic) imagery and themes are front and centre in the film, and there’s certainly an attempt to link men of the cloth to sexual perversion. In one of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' most chilling scenes, a sinister priest called Gracián (Jan Klusák) tries to molest our heroine in her bedroom, while earlier a monstrous missionary in a black hooded robe delivers a sermon full of salacious innuendo to a group of virginal young maidens – “You are the touch of an alabaster hand. A still unsplit pomegranate”.
Ultimately, though, Jireš – whose previous films The Cry and The Joke were realist in nature – goes beyond religion’s ills to focus on how the old prey on the young; vampires, such as Valerie's grandmother (Helena Anýzová), suck their blood, but we also see our heroine's friend Hedvika (Alena Stojáková) being married off to a wealthy landowner three times her age. What we get is a picture of youth – specifically young women – under siege and, barely two years after the Prague Spring was brutally supressed, it hardly takes a massive leap of logic to work out who and what might be the real target of the director's ire.
The film makes little narrative sense – characters who die come back to life, their actual relationship to Valerie confused and contradictory. A young man called Orlík (Petr Kopriva), with mutton-chop sideburns and John Lennon glasses, starts off as Valerie’s enemy (he tries to steal her magic earrings as she sleeps) before becoming her friend, being revealed as her brother, and ending up as her boyfriend. However, his deathly, vampiric pallor suggests she – and we – can’t entirely trust him. Indeed, the whole film is a massive fug of ambiguity suffused with dream logic, its myriad distractions masking what is essentially a simple story of a young girl's sexual awakening.
Although vampire grandma and pervert-priest Gracián cause Valerie a certain amount of trouble, the film's main villain is Weasel (Jirí Prýmek), a blood-sucker who bears an unmistakeable resemblance to Max Schreck's Nosferatu, complete with skull face, bald head and pointed ears. Like other characters in the film, though, Weasel seems to have many different forms – is he also the Constable (Orlík's boss) and the black-robed missionary? Valerie's father Richard and an actual weasel we see being shot? It all gets rather bewildering and eventually you just surrender yourself to the film's tide of lunacy and let it sweep you along.
Although Valerie is hardly hide-behind-the-sofa scary, there are certainly moments that are queasily discomfiting, such as the first time our heroine spies Weasel in a wedding procession, removing an animal mask to reveal his true face, and when grandmother suddenly emerges to suck Hedvika's blood on her wedding night. Seemingly set in the 19th Century, with its buxom peasant girls and quaint cobbled streets, you could quite easily be in the Transylvania of a Dracula film.
The film is truly a feast for the eyes, Jan Curík’s lush cinematography bringing numerous scenes set in the Czechoslovak countryside crackling to life, while Lubos Fiser's delicate, haunting score deserves every bit of its beloved cult status. However, as enchanting as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders undoubtedly is, there’s an issue with the film that it would be remiss not to mention.
Schallerová – a winning mix of doe-eyed innocence and spiky charm throughout – was only 13 years-old when it was made and appears partially nude in several scenes. Much of this is innocently presented but some of it is more titillating – yes, it’s a different time, in a different country (which no longer even exists), with different laws, norms, traditions and attitudes, but some might be put off the film as a result.
This region-free Blu-ray – which features a new HD transfer of the film – boasts two different audio commentaries. The one featuring author Peter Hames and writer/producer Daniel Bird is a bit flat and fusty, but still informative, with the pair particularly good on the background to Valerie's creation following the end of the Prague Spring in 1968.
Far livelier is the commentary from the team at The Projection Booth podcast – Mike White, Sam Deighan, and Kat Ellinger. The trio discuss Valerie’s uniqueness in the vampire movie genre, the “creepiest sexual harassment scene ever made”, and the “feminine energy” brought to the film by Ester Krumbachová, the godmother of the Czech New Wave, who’s credits here as co-writer and production designer hardly do justice to her influence. It’s fascinating, thoughtful stuff with Ellinger’s contribution especially impressive.
There’s also a filmed introduction to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Michael Brooke, a specialist in Eastern European cinema (20 minutes). In it he discusses the film’s roots in Nezval’s original novel, Jireš’s life and career, and the big influence the film had on British writer Angela Carter, whose short story The Company Of Wolves became a film directed by Neil Jordan which directly references Jireš' film.
Schallerová is the subject of a short interview (from, I think, 2006) in which she discusses beating 1500 other girls to win the role of Valerie and reflects on a successful career in which she made 40 films and worked all over Europe. Schallerová’s clearly an interesting woman who has lived a fascinating life but six minutes isn't long enough in her company.
The undoubted highlight of these extras is three short films by Jireš, all shot a good few years before Valerie. Uncle (1959) is a simple but effective story of a burglar breaking into a tower block, only to find his criminal plans derailed by the sudden appearance of a toddler. Before he knows it, ‘Uncle’ is mending toys and playing with the kid. It’s genuinely sweet and funny.
Footprints (1961) is an altogether darker affair. Set during WWII in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, we see a family take in a Russian POW who is on the run. However, their act of kindness leads to ruin in a shocking and powerful drama.
The best of the three shorts is undoubtedly The Hall Of Lost Footsteps (1960), in which Jireš draws parallels between the horrors of the Holocaust and the testing of an atomic bomb by the French in the Sahara Desert. There’s a despairing ‘when will we ever learn’ edge to the film, a jazzy score and abstract structure only adding to its haunting qualities.
To top it all off, there's a trailer and a 24-page booklet featuring writing from the aforementioned Hames as well as Exhumed Films co-founder Joseph A Gervasi. Second Run always deliver the goods when it comes to extras and this set is no different.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Dir: Jaromil Jires | Cast: Helena Anýzová, Jaroslava Schallerová, Jirí Prýmek, Petr Kopriva | Writers: Ester Krumbachová (screenplay), Jaromil Jires (screenplay), Jirí Musil (dialogue), Vítezslav Nezval (novel)