A Czechoslovakian cult classic, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders, based on a novel written by the poet, Vitezslav Nezval, was adapted to the screen and directed by Jaromil Jires (The Joke, The Dance Teacher), a film-maker associated mostly with his prominence during the Czech New-Wave of cinema in the 60’s. This, probably his seminal film, has found a home on DVD in the UK thanks to Second Run, and I was overjoyed to finally sit down and experience what has become known as masterpiece of Czech art cinema.
Ethereal from the outset, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders almost resembles a 60’s experimental film made by students, the opening credits look amateur in a way, but that quickly changes. Surreal, in an engaging way, it immediately confuses with unusual imagery and scenes of girls bathing in a lake, one of whom proceeds to kiss a fish before stuffing it into her blouse, a strange man stealing Valerie’s earrings, and Valerie finding a daisy splattered with drops of blood. This, all in the first five minutes, opens questions and allows us insight into the tone we should expect.
The story, without spoiling things for those of you who haven’t seen it, and without giving away the surprising elements and scenarios that make the film such an entrancing one, we follow Valerie, a young girl who is staying with her Grandmother while her parents are away. She gets her first period during this time, and this causes vampires to come to her village. Her Grandmother is turned young again by one of these vampires and she begins to tell people that she is Valerie’s young relative. Valerie is then put through numerous trials which she manages to cope with due to a strange protective set of earrings that she wears. Using mythological folklore, we witness the sexual awakening of the teenage Valerie through a variety of scenarios she finds herself in, during her aforementioned “week of wonders”.
It begins strangely, as it means to go on. Our lead, Jarsoslava Schallerova was fourteen at the time of the films’ release and this was her first job as an actress and became the film that her career became synonymous with. Her doll-like features and expressions, as well as her childish and naïve nature go to creating a character that fits into the fairy-tale like prose in a seamless way. She’s magnificent in the role, and deals well with the utterly bizarre material she had placed on her lap with this film.
It is rather shocking to see a young actress involved in scenes of lesbianism, torture, incest and sexual liberation, among other things. While nothing is graphic, the mere themes we witness are pretty damn crazy when you consider how young Schallerova was when she made the film. It doesn’t make the film disturbing though, due to the avoidance of going too far, but it remains unavoidable that watching a young character in these situations can be uncomfortable to watch. I will also say that personally, the use of animal killing in the film, while minimal and relevant to the story, was something I felt was avoidable. I am aware that this was made during a different time and it isn’t the only film to use this (Cannibal Holocaust and Wake of Fright’s depictions of animal deaths were far more graphic, and far worse) but I would have preferred to have seen it avoided.
There is a use of birds here, regularly, often being trapped or set free, a metaphor possibly for the lecherous vampires that prey on the youth and target Valerie and their wanting to imprison her as well as the imprisonment and eventual freedom of sexual expression that comes along with growing up. Their mission to steal her innocence bringing a horror to the film that is reminiscent of the classic F. W. Murnau gothic tale, Nosferatu while the folksy surreal fantasy resembles Alice in Wonderland. The imagery, and the tone, much of the time, reminded me of Nosferatu, and the shadowy and dark figures of the bull-whipping demonic vampires’ offers one of the more creepy versions of the legend that I’ve personally witnessed. Erotically charged, the film is certainly something that couldn’t be made today, especially with certain themes being explored with an actress of a certain age.
Well cleaned up but with plenty of the grain remaining to remind us of the era, the use of vivid and bright colours in the film give it a fantastical type of energy and the use of these colours isn’t just used randomly. We see white and shining lights to signify religion and purity, while we see black to signify evil and a change to a more macabre tone. We see Valierie herself take on these two sides of the coin during the movie. This theme is relevant and significant throughout. The folktale style and wonderfully chipper musical score from Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusak brings whimsy and allows us to get a feel for the time period we are witnessing, as well as the closed-off community that inhabits the story. The misty grassland, the babbling brooks and the swaying trees offer a beautiful location which is contrasted greatly by the gothic crypts we see at other times, filled with bones and coffins and red candles.
Evocative, completely surreal and told in a dreamlike way, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders is musical, offbeat, beautiful and at times rather dark. While it will confuse some to the point of frustration, it will also unequivocally seduce others with its eccentricity and its wonderful lead performance. Haunting, and with genuinely creepy moments of classic gothic horror, I was enchanted by the film, and though there were moments where I lost track of the bizarre things that were happening on screen, I always found my way back onto the path and was satisfied at where the path found itself as the film came to a close.
The DVD from Second Run also has a couple of special features on offer, the best being a fairly recent interview with Jaroslava Schallerova. Schallerova, who seems like a really lovely woman, brings some insight into the making of the film, how she got the part of “Valerie” and her feelings on the film today. The other feature is merely an introduction to the film from writer, Michael Brooke. Second Run have done a great job with this, and have released a truly magical film that was a joy to experience. The DVD also comes with a 20-page booklet about the film.