Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Jaroslava Schallerová in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

4 July

 

Lewis Carroll tells Alice Liddell a story, 1862

On this day in 1862, the British writer, mathematician, photographer and logician Charles Dodgson told a story to a small group of children on a rowing trip. The children were the Liddells, the offspring of Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church, where Charles Dodgson was eventually to become a deacon. Prompted to write it down, according to all accounts, by the four-year-old Alice Liddell, Dodgson did so, and in November 1864 he gave her a hand-written copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Fantasy literature pioneer George MacDonald, a friend of Dodgson, persuaded him to try and get it published. Macmillan took his book, and published it, under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll. It was an instant success. He followed it up with An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, a mathematical work, published under the name of Dodgson.

 

 

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, dir: Jaromil Jires)

If the past is another country, what about a film from another country, made under the hegemony of another political system, in an era very different from our own. I’m trying to say that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is weird. Its theme for starters. In the same way that Lewis Carroll’s reputation has struggled against the modern obsession with his feelings for little girls, both as subjects for his books and his photographs, Jaromil Jires’s 1970 film deals with something we no longer address directly – menstruation, and the transition of a girl into womanhood. The problem for some modern viewers stemming from the fact that Jires presents the girl as a woman in embryo, sexual cunning hovering as 13-year-old Valerie make her gauzy, filmy, backlit way through a film that is an Alice in Wonderland tale of strange, symbolic encounters with things beyond her ken.
Valerie is dressed all in white. We meet her in her bedroom, decorated all in white, as a thief wakes her up. He’s stolen something valuable given to Valerie by her mother. By the next morning the valuables are back, but Valerie has had her first period and the town suddenly seems awash with pheromones, her budding femininity a lure for anything with a dick in its trousers. The town is also awash with missionaries and the carnival, each in their different way obsessed with sex. What is a girl to do? Yesterday she was playing with toys; today new play equipment seems to have been installed.
This hazy, dreamlike, quasi-surreal, relentlessly symbolic film could also not be made today because, rare exceptions apart, we don’t go in for surrealism or overt symbolism too much now (the white T shirt of the “final girl” in horror films being something of a throwback). Like the cult 1967 TV series The Prisoner, or the original The Wicker Man, in Valerie there’s a constant suspicion that another reality lies just out of reach, that things are about to break on through to the other side, as the Doors put it in song. The soundtrack reinforces that impression, the tinkly harpsichord so often being the signifier in films of this period of the metaphysical.
Strangely, considering all this blurry, referential, meta-whatsit business, the film is shot in the crispest, cleanest, most brightly coloured and most beautifully lit fashion. The Communist authorities at the time hardly went a bundle on this sort of abstract, symbolic, esoteric nonsense. They preferred black and white, socialist realism, proud young workers striving towards a better future and so on, not some child wandering among the vampires and demons, black magic and sexual mantraps that Jires is intent on putting in Valerie’s way. Doubtless the authorities were convinced that the Church in the film was no symbolic literary device, that Jires meant the film as an attack on the corrupting power of an institution inimical to the spirit of Communism. However, everyone living in any totalitarian regime becomes well versed in the double reading of every cultural artefact. They would have seen the Church here as representing the repressive state, the burning of heretics a reminder of the suppression of the liberally minded Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, which had taken place only two years earlier. In fact Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a product of that sudden loosening of the Communist grip, when it looked like Europe might return to business as usual. And as well as telling a story of a girl and her odd and surreal week, that is part of the film’s project, connecting Czechoslovakia back up to a wider Europe, with the Grimm brothers in its past, Hammer horror and giallo in its present, and who knows what in its future.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A cinematic one-off
  • The gorgeous cinematography of Jan Curík
  • The frail beauty of Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie
  • Alice in Wonderland coined anew

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – Watch it now at Amazon

I have seen Second Run’s beautifully restored version and can recommend it

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders”

  1. A "coming of age" story like no other, this Czech Gothic fairytale is possibly the most lyrical film ever made. Valerie, a 13 year old staying with her grandmother while her parents are away has her first menstruation, triggering a series of interlocking dreams about lustful vampires who prey upon her youth. Despite the monstrous goings-on, the film is a buoyant and sensual pleasure to watch. The camera-work and composition never ceases to amaze and the energy of its tuneful folklike score propels the convoluted story forward effortlessly. And much credit should be given to Jaroslava Schallerova as Valerie who inhabits the role with the right balance of knowledge and wonder

  2. "Valerie and Her Week of Wonders" is a wonderfully surreal and hallucinatory horror/fantasy tale made by Jaromil Jires.This poetic film looks like a curious mixture of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Nosferatu".The pubescent Valerie is awakened one day by a pasty-faced,Nosferatu-like vampire who steals her earrings(which,we later learn,are imbued with magical powers).She pursues him,but he manages to vanish into a crowd.She spots the vampire again later, feebly disguised behind a mouse-head mask,and points him out to her(alarmingly pale)grandmother.As it turns out,the earring thief has vampirized Valerie’s grannie,along with much of the town,and furthermore has set up shop in the dark,cobwebby basement of Valerie’s house!Matters aren’t helped by the presence of a lecherous priest with an eye for Valerie,but things really come to a head when Val’s young, pretty ‘aunt’ moves in and tries to take Valerie out of the picture.The aunt is in fact Val’s vampirized grandmother looking to further the head vamp’s nefarious aims.Luckily Valerie’s one true love,a dashing young man,is there to help her escape her grandmother’s clutches and defeat the vampires, which inspires a mass celebration among the townspeople,ending with them all surrounding Valerie as she climbs into an outdoor bed and goes to sleep.The film itself is loaded with incredibly dreamy atmosphere as it mixes perfectly fantasy with reality.The main actress Jaroslava Schallerova is stunningly beautiful.A must-see for fans of poetic horror.10 out of 10.

  3. An aimless but fascinating surreal fantasy – a sort of adult-oriented version of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ with a distinctly Eastern European flavor – VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS was a revelation for me, and I am very glad I went the extra mile to acquire a copy of it on VHS.

    The narrative makes little sense and, like I said, it does not lead to anywhere in particular, but the film’s trump card is the incredible (and often poetic) beauty of its images. The film ostensibly deals with the sexual awakening of a teenage girl, though the way director Jaromil Jires goes about this is extremely complex yet effortlessly captivating, and very enjoyable to boot. It takes in a variety of dazzling psycho-sexual concepts drawn from religion and mythological folklore which come off as both inextricably modern and deeply provocative still.

    The film features a number of sexual perversions throughout, which is pretty amazing when considering that the lead actress was only 13 years old at the time (though nothing too explicit is ever shown): she is involved in lesbianism, incestuous/Oedipal familial relationships, and is even subjected to an attempted rape by a young priest – apart from being shown in various states of undress! In this way, it would seem to cater to the tastes of practically every broad-minded film-goer one can think of (be it art-house, horror or erotica), though it is arguable how well-known this film really is – which is a pity.

    The few elements we find here of the traditional horror film are worth expanding upon, however: we get a number of vampires (the leading member bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Max Schreck of NOSFERATU [1922]) who periodically revert to their formerly more human and youthful selves, if only to further disorientate Valerie and ensnare her in their volatile and greedy schemes. Finally we ‘witness’ Valerie being burned alive at the stake (as a witch), a punishment instigated by the same priest who had earlier seduced her. Still, she manages to emerge unscathed from her every crisis, thanks to a special talisman (in the shape of a pair of earrings) and the help of her goofy but devoted brother/lover, who goes by the name of Eagle!

    Jaroslava Schallerova, who plays Valerie, is lovely and utterly charming throughout, striking a perfect balance between wide-eyed innocence and a curious sexual urge. Photography, sets, costumes and make-up are all wonderful (if obviously done on a low budget) – and the accompanying choral music is beautiful indeed, almost ethereal.

    The by-now deleted Redemption PAL tape presented the film in a full-screen format (I’m not sure if this is the correct ratio or not); the print was far from pristine but perfectly acceptable for an obscure item such as this. I wonder who owns the U.S. rights, as I would love to see it get a much-deserved renaissance on DVD.

    I cannot say whether VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS was actually a one-off for this Czech film-maker, as I know very little about his other work. The only Jaromil Jires film available anywhere at the moment is THE JOKE (1969), by way of a reportedly substandard edition from Facets Video on VHS and DVD.

  4. A masterpiece of erotic confusion, Valerie comes as a delightful introduction to prolific Czechoslovakian director Jaromil Jires, whose career spans five decades. Jires blends reality and illusion to the extent that a synopsis does a disservice to the film, yet the literary story would work quite well on its own. Jaroslava Schallerovà, only 14 years old at the time, plays Valerie, a pretty young girl who lives with her grandmother in a beautiful yet antiseptic house. Her boyfriend (or perhaps brother), who goes by the name Eagle, sets off a chain of unusual events when he steals her earrings. A troupe of actors, or perhaps a wedding procession, comes into town, bringing with it a man who may be a monstrous vampire but may also be Valerie’s father. Soon after Valerie’s grandmother either disappears or dies, her Cousin Else shows up at the house and bears more than a striking resemblance to the grandmother (indeed, I believe these characters are played by the same actress). Things progress much along these lines, with eventually Valerie experiencing a major reawakening. Jires films in an impressively sensual manner, creating a mood through imagery rather than plot point. At times, however, the details get rather confusing, which can unfortunately shift attention from the beautiful composition and editing to deducing narrative developments. Many sequences appear to occur within the story but then end with the suggestion that they have just been imagined, introducing a need to constantly second-guess one’s perceptions. Schallerovà plays the role with stunning (perhaps genuine) innocence. Without overindulged serenity, Valerie mystifies and befuddles through an agenda of symbol-soaked imagery and fantastic storytelling.

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