The sixth submission in the June review writing contest: by “Kat.”
DIRECTED BY: Jaromil Jires
FEATURING: Jaroslava Schallerova, Helena Anyzova, Petr Kopriva, Jiri Prymek
PLOT: 13-year old Valerie lives with her grandmother in a small rural village in
Czechoslovakia; on the week of her menarche she drifts into a sensual, and at times threatening, dreamworld.
WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST: This is a gently weird film, as close to representing a dream on film as I have yet seen. Every shot is a thing of beauty. The plot is loose but generally true to its own dream logic. As she approaches adulthood Valerie finds herself the object of desire for men, women and weasel-men alike. Responding to all the strange occurrences around her with unflappable calmness, Valerie is a passive heroine, but Schallerova oozes charm and is a complete eye magnet whenever she is onscreen.
COMMENTS: A tight, coherent plot is not the strength of this piece, it has to be said. It’s very much like the moments when you first wake from a puzzling dream, before your conscious mind has started to add little bridging details to try and make sense of it.
Valerie lives with her grandmother, and at the age of 13 has her first period. Her grandmother tells her that this is the same age as her mother was. It seems to be an occasion for neither celebration nor shame. Valerie tells her grandmother that she is excited at the prospect of a troupe of actors arriving in the village and is informed that she’d do better to be excited about the arrival of the bishop and his priests. You’d be forgiven for thinking that her grandmother is a bit of a party pooper, but like everyone in this film she’s not just what she appears to be at first glance. Throughout the film religion and sexuality arm wrestle for dominance, but it’s rather like both arms are on the same body.
The performers arrive, as do the clergy. The bishop has come to deliver a sermon to the virgins of the village, and it’s a pretty inappropriate one. The bishop himself is a tad inappropriate at times, and has a face not designed to inspire confidence, looking like the hideous love child of Graf Orlak and Bergman’s Death, but with some of the most terrible teeth ever committed to film. Again though, by the end of the film you’ll see him in different light.
During the course of the film Valerie will see transforming weasels, a hairy priest striptease and the nubile young women of the village will invite her to join them in a game of “hide the fish down your bodice” in the sun dappled river. She will cure a young women of a strange vampiric ailment by sleeping with her, spy on her grandmother in a odd sexual situation while the toothy bishop lurks at her shoulder and will laugh in the face of being burned at the stake. Throughout it all Valerie is protected by her mother’s magic earrings and is watched over, in a slightly creepy way by her brother (or would be lover?) Eagle.
Films about girls “coming of age” are few and far between and this is a gorgeous example. Valerie is surrounded by sexuality both threatening and inviting. She is on the receiving end of aggressive approaches from the hairy priest and her domineering female cousin, but also sees a guiltless, inviting sensuality in the form of the women in the river, the young woman she spends the night with and the gentle Eagle.
In the end Valerie seems to have explored both the dark and the light of impending womanhood and emerged into the sunlight, where even the toothy bishop seems a bit of a sweetie.
This would make a perfect double bill with Neil Jordan and Angela Carter’s Company Of Wolves, if you fancy an evening of oestrogen-heavy weirdness.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: