Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) Review

In the most basic of senses, those who dismissively categorise certain films as "weird" will probably not enjoy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů). By the same token, the eager viewer who craves anything described as such will most likely adore the film. That's a divider, but definitely not the only one. Enthusiasts of films about little girls, vampire-like creatures, creepy situations, and Gothic eroticism may align themselves closely with the movie, too. So the appeal is, if not so much broad, at least there in some form. The 1970 Czechoslovakian film carries a lot on its little 73-minute shoulders. While much of it appears to be impenetrable, the dreamlike nature of the majority of the picture washes over the viewer with such a commanding presence as to be hypnotic. Truthfully, I find deep analyses of the film to be unpersuasive. Too much rests on uncertain, unconfirmed interpretation that will vary based on each individual reading. I'd much prefer to view the film based on the almost chimerical trance it places the viewer in and without the political or historical background crowding things.

For those who feel otherwise, the brief rundown is that director Jaromil Jireš had already made several shorts and a couple of solo feature films as part of the Czech New Wave. He also directed some pictures afterwards, but nothing before or since had the feel of Valerie, which is often cited as either the last gasp or the beginning of the last gasp of that movement. The film's story is from a novel by Czech surrealist Vítězslav Nezval and adapted by Jireš and Ester Krumbachová, who was instrumental in writing the Czech classics Daisies and Fruit of Paradise (both directed by Vera Chytilová). As Michael Brooke mentions in his interview on the disc, Neil Jordan's 1984 film The Company of Wolves bears a direct and obvious influence to the film, replacing vampires with werewolves.

Valerie's plot is loose, free, and not really respectful of a traditional narrative. The title character's "week of wonders" represents her first menstruation. This is shown as a few drops of blood on a daisy and must be the most poetic representation of a young woman's initial period ever found on film. I'm inclined to take the rest of what happens as an eye level glance at how Valerie's impending womanhood, and the confusion it brings, manifests itself into a disturbing sort of fairy tale not unlike a more adult version of The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland. The immediate sexual awakening is perhaps the most startling aspect of these changes. In portraying Valerie's apparently newfound awareness of the carnality surrounding her, the film uses eroticism both daringly and discreetly. The shock is contained within the viewer's own morality, at scenes like a priest's lecherous aggression towards Valerie. This may be the most overt example of anti-religion undertones, but, again, it's entirely possible to take the film as it is and without attaching secondary meanings. Valerie's fending off of Father Gracian can be seen as just another instance where her burgeoning fertility has attracted anyone and everyone. Her menstrual cycle becomes a key that opens up the less ideal world of reality and its myriad dangers.

These threats to Valerie's innocence lurk in nearly every scene, forcing her to ingest magical earrings which have special powers reminiscent of the emerald candy in Jacques Rivette's not entirely dissimilar Celine and Julie Go Boating. Instead of moving into a soapy drama, however, Valerie is able to escape her attackers. It's not that she transports herself from the real world into a fantastic one, though. Indeed, reality is altogether absent. The entire film is one of phantasmagoria and softly lit daydreams and nightmares. The frequent use of nature and sunlight-flecked interiors create a world deceptive in its familiarity, inviting us all in for the horror show. Valerie's transition into the beginnings of adulthood becomes both exciting and terrifying. Consequently, the viewer too shares her experiences and the film compellingly allows Valerie to act as observer. Notice how often she's shown simply looking at what's occurring, courageously taking it all in while her world becomes altered forever. These scenes tend to ground the film for its viewers and allow for an accessibility that mitigates any problems of confusion.

This further translates into a profound subjectivity where most everything is ripe for interpretation, but not demanding of it. Scored to the dreamy music of Luboš Fišer, which at times cued up The Smashing Pumpkins' "Thirty-Three" in my own head, the film is entirely malleable. Its strengths and weaknesses even tend to be indistinguishable. The viewer need not attach meaning or motivation to every scene. Simply letting it all be and enjoying the ambiguity can be quite satisfying. Some aspects of the film emit a distinct oddness. Others are confusing or scrambled. Scenes of the vampiric Weasel and his long black cloak feel unsettling. These are all gateways into a world of unusual fantasy, using 13-year-old Valerie as our inexperienced guide. If such a thing as a controlled hallucinogenic existed, I'm inclined to think its effects would resemble watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

The Disc

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders comes to region-free PAL DVD from the Second Run label. Despite a somewhat sparse release schedule so far this year, the small outfit has even further upped its commitment to quality films and supplements. Each time I explore a new Second Run release the film proves challenging and thought-provoking in the best way possible. I hope to continue seeing such interesting, previously hard-to-find titles from them in the months to come.

The progressive transfer used for this DVD is in the original full frame aspect ratio at 1.33:1. Aside from it often looking really bright, the image is fantastic. Some noticeable speckles can be seen, mostly at the very beginning and then tapering off considerably. It otherwise looks very clean with no significant damage. Strict viewers may find the image to be on the soft side or the colours somewhat faded, but the improvement over previous releases is enormous. In terms of colour accuracy, I found it difficult to know for sure as Valerie's flesh tone seems normal while nearly every other character is pale or even almost light green. Detail, if not excellent, is certainly strong enough to avoid complaint. All things considered, previous viewers of the film may feel like they're seeing it for the first time on this DVD.

The lone audio option is a Czech restored mono track. Though I heard no real issues here, the track has a certain distant sound even for a mono recording. It's nothing that should greatly affect the viewing, however, and those utilising the English subtitles will mostly be concerned with how the score sounds. It does indeed accomplish that ethereally haunting quality with ease. There's a childlike aspect to the score that makes it inviting, but it takes on an eerie foreboding when combined with the film's images. Those English subtitles I mentioned are white in colour, removable, and I didn't notice a single spelling error.

A few modest supplements have been included with the release. A new trailer (2:28) created by Second Run captures the mood of the film quite well. There's also a short interview (5:47) with Valerie herself, actress Jaroslava Schallerová. It's subtitled and seems to have been filmed recently, with a 2006 copyright listed in the booklet. Despite its brevity, the interview is a nice inclusion both for a few anecdotes (which I won't spoil here) and to see her now as a woman in the middle part of life. Last but not least, DVD Times reviewer emeritus Michael Brooke provides an introduction (20:07) that's full of background to the film. He does speak a little fast at times and with a fluctuating tone of voice, but there's a good deal of useful information shared. Little interviews like this can add so much to smaller releases. My only real complaint is that there are a lot of clips in the piece so if the viewer watches the introduction before the film and then wishes to see it again afterwards, the clips become a bit repetitive. An option maybe to watch with or without the clips might have been nice, as would the inclusion of subtitles.

As usual, Second Run includes a booklet with its release. The 20-page affair has an essay by Peter Hames that runs 8 pages and discusses the film and its origins in detail. I do find parts of the article unpersuasive because of how deep his analysis attempts to go when I'm not convinced the film itself supports such a reading. I'm still glad it's there, however, and parts were nonetheless instructional. The booklet also has a shorter appreciation from Joseph A. Gervasi, co-founder of The Valerie Project, which is a musical act in the U.S. that has created a secondary soundtrack intended to play along with the film.

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