Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders - 50th Anniversary Film Review
Max Leonard Hitchings is reviewing Jaromil Jireš's 1970 visual marvel.
“O, maiden, do you know what you are?”- Constable
Based on a novel by Surrealist writer Vítězslav Nezval, this Czechoslovak New Wave film is directed by Jaromil Jireš (The Joke) and stars Jaroslava Schallerová in its title role, alongside Helena Anýzová and Jiří Prýmek.
Ostensibly a “coming of age” story, the film takes the form of a series of dreamlike vignettes.
From the very start we see 13-year-old Valerie immersed in sensory experiences - drinking from a fountain, cuddling a bird, sniffing flowers, and playing with her strangely musical earrings (on which more later). The mischief begins when her friend Orlík, played by Petr Kopřiva, steals the earrings from Valerie as she sleeps. It transpires he is in the forced servitude of the Constable, who wants the earrings for his own nefarious purpose.
Meanwhile, when Valerie is crossing the garden one evening, we see blood fall upon the soft white petals of a fresh daisy growing on the ground beneath her feet. She picks it up and carries it into a bedroom coded to represent innocence and virginity - a white room with white sheets and white curtains.
Valerie is experiencing the menarche, and it is clear that nothing will ever be the same for her again.
What follows is a feverish, intoxicating, sequence of images of vampirism, sex, and corrupt, lecherous priests.
In one early scene, a wedding party arrives in the town and Valerie gazes down from her window at the bride in pity - she fears what her friend’s life will be once married to her groom, a man a few decades her senior.
Also in the wedding party is a gruesome, masked figure - the aforementioned Constable.
Valerie lives with her grandmother, and sadly both parents passed away when she was young. Her grandmother gazes portentously at a painting of Valerie’s mother when she learns she’s started her first period “at the age of 13 - just like [her] mother”. She then advises her to get rid of the earrings - by now we may suspect that they have some kind of power - explaining that she bought them from the Constable at an auction when she bought the house in which they live.
The mise-en-scène has an eerie, hallucinogenic folk-horror feel, complete with creepy animal masks prefiguring The Wicker Man, and the film has a whimsical, playful score by Luboš Fišer, which was given a vinyl release by Finders Keepers in 2006.
We are treated to vampyric orgies, unbridled intercourse amongst the trees, and magical jewelry, but repeated shots of Valerie in her bed suggest that this may all be the febrile imaginings that accompany the young girl’s sexual awakening and transition into adulthood.
Songs of Innocence and Experience abound, but the film also contains a scathing caricature of the clergy, the Constable being portrayed as a deeply conceited and hypocritical, corrupt parasite, while Gracián, played by the composer Jan Klusák, is a predatory, paedophilic priest.
A sermon given by the Constable to a congregation of young virgins is terrifically creepy.
Despite this clear anti-Catholic (and therefore anti-patriachal) stance, one might well wonder how well placed a man in his mid-thirties is to write a novel about the sexual and menstrual dawn of a 13-year-old-girl, or direct a film about the subject for that matter. Having not read the source text, I can’t comment on it, however the gaze of the film, although certainly male, is not a leering one overall - in fact shots of our (clad, albeit scantily) protagonist are, on the whole, tastefully framed (for 1970 at least). Perhaps the fact that both production design and co-writing of the screenplay are credited to Ester Krumbachová, who co-wrote the strongly feminist Sedmikrásky (Daisies) (1966) has something to do with it.
This relative tastefulness falls away, by today’s standards at least, when we come to our protagonist’s nude scenes. The framing of the nudity of 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie seems uncomfortable, awkward, and gratuitous even if her mother was present on set for all of her scenes. It isn’t so much the nudity of a minor on screen that is off-putting, but the utter needlessness of that nudity - in one scene in particular, Valerie allows her dress to fall off her body (in shock, one supposes), when witnessing a scene of vampirism. This kind of gauche tactic is redolent of films of this period from the UK and USA, but the fact that the girl is underage is just grubby and places the audience uncomfortably in the perspective of the paedophile priests.
The film is about Valerie but its gaze is on her, not from her point of view.
These misgivings aside, the film is a tremendous production, taking the viewer through an astounding torrent of images.
Part horror-fantasy, part psychosexual delrium, and part anti-Catholic propaganda, Valerie a týden divů is a a sumptuous visual and sonic feast.
Interesting facts about Valerie and Her Week of Wonders:
- The film is listed in 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die by Steven Jay Schneider
- It was shot around Slavonice and Kostelní Vydří, Czech republic
- The son of the author of the novel, Vítězslav Nezval, had a small part in the movie, as a little boy with a tin drum.
- Our fav video edit by David Dean Burkhart with music by Night Things to be found here.
Valerie a týden divů has just recently been reissued on DVD and blu-ray by Second Run. Get your copy here.
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