Valerie a Týden Divu
“…one of those haunting, dream-like films that once seen is difficult to forget.”–Tanya Krzywinska
DIRECTED BY: Jaromil Jires
FEATURING: Jaroslava Schallerova, Petr Kopriva, Helena Anyzova, Jiri Prymek, Jan Klusák
PLOT: Young Valerie lives in a farmhouse on the edge of a small town with her Granny. She flirts with “Eagle,” a boy about her age who is either a neighbor or her brother, and they both fear a pale-faced bogeyman they call “the Weasel.” On the day she becomes a woman (symbolized by blood drops appearing on a daisy), Valerie’s life suddenly becomes a strange dream involving family betrayals, lusty priests, constantly shifting identities, and a vampire infestation.
- Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, which was written in 1935 but not published until 1945. Nezval was a co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group (one of the first Surrealist groups organized outside of France).
- This is considered one of the last works in what was known as the Czech New Wave, although that term more commonly refers to Czech movies made or released just before or during the Prague spring of 1968. In contrast to most of the New Wave canon, Valerie was released after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the installation of a hardline government who redoubled censorship efforts. Despite the fact that it’s a Surrealist work, equally offensive to the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism as a banned New Wave movie like 1967’s Daisies, Valerie appears to have evoked little objection from the censors. This may be because the film’s heavily anticlerical tone meshed with the Communist Party’s official stance on the Church.
- A Philadelphia “freak folk” supergroup dubbed “The Valerie Project” wrote an alternate soundtrack to the film, and toured across the U.S. from 2006-2008 performing the score while the film screened as a silent movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Drops of blood on white daisy petals.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is often, and accurately, described as a Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland, with the confusion of new hormones surging through the young heroine’s body coloring her encounters with a dark and fearful tinge: Valerie faces vampires and rapist priests instead of Alice’s White Rabbits and Cheshire Cats. The plot makes no literal sense, because characters keep changing into different characters, the way they might in a dream; but overall Valerie’s welter of wonders hangs together as a mosaic of a girl’s anxieties about impending adulthood and the enticing but scary world of sex.
Clip from Peter Hames Criterion Collection commentary Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
COMMENTS: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders opens with images of pretty young Valerie drinking from a waterspout, petting a dove, sniffing wildflowers, eating cherries; scenes of innocent childhood sensuality. And yet, the camera also lovingly focuses on her pouty lips and her long cinnamon hair, and includes a lingering down-the-blouse shot of her developing breasts barely covered by a silk chemise as she dangles pearl earrings over her chest. Within the few minutes it takes the credits to run, Valerie has already been sketched as a half-woman, half-girl creature of intense physicality. In the first proper scene, a rural boy wearing a straw hat steals those pearl earrings from her as she sleeps in a chaise, with a doll clutched in her arms and her nightgown suggestively unbuttoned to reveal her proto-cleavage. Does the theft of her earrings suggest her loss of innocence, or even her virginity? Valerie wakes and notices the missing jewelry; as she investigates, she sees a vision of a pale-faced man with rotting fangs and cries to herself, “the Weasel!” Then, she’s suddenly doing the backstroke in the local fountain while flower petals float around her, and a pair of hands replace the earrings and whisper, “forgive me.” Next she spies on the boy as “the Constable,” a black-robed figure whose white face looks like the vision she had of “the Weasel,” interrogates the boy, Eagle, about the whereabouts of the earrings; it appears he will be punished viciously for failing to obtain them. Valerie wanders away from the scene, and we see blood dropping onto a daisy as she passes. She looks at the flower with confusion, then alarm, then passes a stream where blond women splash and play suggestively with each other (one puts a squiggling fish down her bodice) as she rushes home to tell her Granny what has happened…
If the plot hasn’t lost you yet, it will soon. As is appropriate to a movie launched by unexpected and mysterious changes in its protagonist’s own body, everything in Valerie‘s story is constantly changing. Characters cannot hold to a single identity. The boy, Eagle, is Valerie’s natural paramour, but later it’s suggested that he may actually be her brother. Her granny (who is a young woman with her blond hair pulled into a tight bun and pale makeup that gives her a pallor reminiscent of the Weasel/Constable) starts as a mother substitute, and later is successively revealed as a debased fornicator, a betrayer, and Valerie’s long-lost cousin; then, she returns to being Granny before dying and returning as the reincarnation of her dead mother. Most mutable of all is the character we’ve already described as the Weasel, who takes the form of the Constable, of Valerie’s priestly confessor and confidant, of a vampire, a surrogate father, a literal weasel, and more. This character seems to represent all adult males in Valerie’s eyes; he metamorphoses from a figure of wonder and respect to one of fear to a frightful desire. In a rapid fire succession of masculinity’s shifting identities, Valerie watches a figure in a troupe of actors wearing a rodent mask, who pulls it away to reveal the rotten, grinning face of the Weasel; he then waves a fan and briefly becomes a kindly, handsome man before returning to his monstrous form again. Valerie herself cannot keep a constant shape, but herself keeps changing. She desires Eagle, yet fears him when she suspects he may actually be her brother, then spurns him, yet wonders why he deserts her in her time of need. Ironically, she is almost always dressed in virginal white, except when she attends a religious ceremony honoring the local virgins; there, she’s the only girl dressed in black. She is pure, perhaps, yet she eagerly allows herself to be seduced by a more experienced woman, and is later burned as a witch.
Valerie’s shifting natures reflect her ambivalence about the sexual world. When she passes the women playing in the stream, she self-consciously glances at her own flat chest, so unlike theirs. Issues of family and incest taboos weigh heavily on her mind, as she theorizes and fears she is related to strangers, while her supposed blood relations later turn out to be traitors. She sees old women begging for sex, women enjoying each other carnally, and finds her own basement has become a whorehouse. At one point a procession of nuns passes by her, but she glances past them at a couple entwined in the woods; it is as unclear to her as to us whether the woman’s contortions and expressions are the result of passion or rape. The Church, the omnipresent superego of the village, offers Valerie no help, comfort, or true understanding, but only fear and guilt. That institution publicly enforces chastity, yet Valerie is told offhandedly that she is the offspring of a nun and a bishop, and later a man of the cloth tries to rape her. In blackface, the Weasel/Constable takes the place of a priest, and delivers a seductive homily heavy on mammary imagery. Valerie is taught to fear sex, and to fear men, but what she is taught is as much to fear her own desire, which she is told will lead her to perdition or to the heretic’s stake. That message, delivered to her by hypocrites with the faces of ghouls, contradicts the evidence of her senses, and her heart, and even of her developing body, resulting in no end to her confusions.
Men and women will likely approach Valerie’s story differently. While, to women, Valerie is someone to identify with, to men she is, as the priests suggest, a temptation. Jires and his camera implicitly treat Valerie as a sexual being, almost to the point of leering at the young girl. The very pretty 13-year old actress who plays Valerie is briefly seen nude (to make things erotically confusing, she is also praying at the time), and at other points her flimsy dress is provocatively disheveled. The girl even has a seductive way of eating soup. While the film is far from pedophiliac, the presentation of Valerie as an object of desire—of forbidden desire—is deliberate, and discomfiting. It makes men uncomfortable, because we must confront our potential lust for the naïve girl, while simultaneously battling the internalized taboo against admitting the appeal of pubescent females. In this way, while adult women may recognize Valerie’s sexual discomfort from memory, adult males are caught in a conflict between natural impulses and the social repression of illicit desires that mirrors the very dilemma Valerie faces in navigating this strange, labyrinthine new world of sexual rewards and punishments.
There can be no solution to Valerie’s confusion other than experience. She cannot simply rely on the advice of her Granny or the Church, or even on the longings of her own heart; she must experience the carnal world for herself. In the film’s final five minutes, she finally kisses Eagle. This leads to the coda where Valerie is taken, by carriage, to a sunlit glade in the woods. The entire village is there, engaged in a festival. The priests lie crippled on the forest floor, grasping at her but unable to move, while the rapist Father is trapped in a birdcage. There is no longer any fear. The lesbians from the brook cavort in the trees like nymphs, eating grapes. Couples pair off in the woods: Valerie’s returned-from-the-dead mother embraces the recently-deceased Weasel, while her father caresses the bride who seduced her. All of them beckon Valerie to join them, but she passes them all by with a knowing smile, making her way to a bed in the middle of the woods. She lies down while the cast dances around her. Then, she is alone, asleep, at peace. Has it all been a dream, or is Valerie’s dream just now beginning?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…full of startling images… like a more explicitly Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide
“…as beguiling as it is beautiful, as subversive as it is strange.”–Anton Bitel, Film 4
IMDB LINK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Second Run DVD – Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – Excerpt from the Peter Hames essay that accompanies the Second Run DVD, plus links to relevant reviews and essays
Transgression, transformation and titillation – Tanya Krzywinska’s through overview discusses Valerie‘s Freudian origins, social context, and its influence on subsequent horror films
Reader Recommendation: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – For another (equally glowing) review of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, please read Kat Doherty‘s excellent reader recommendation for the film written for this site
DVD INFO: Unfortunately, the version of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders most easily available currently to North American residents is the Facets Video release (buy—though see below). While Facets should be praised for an impressive film catalog that includes many important, obscure foreign movies that would not be available to Americans otherwise, videophiles rightfully complain that the prints they use are not the best, and they perform no restoration on the image. The Facets print here is full of artifacts, scratches and other visual noise, and actually looks like a second generation VHS transfer. The DVD includes only one extra, although it is a cool one: Rick Trembles’ cartoon poster for the movie, from his “Motion Picture Purgatory” series. With all the bad news about this release, the even worse news is that the DVD is out of print, although Facets is offering an overpriced DVD-R from their site (and given the already low quality of the DVD version, the DVD-R may not be much of a step down). Europeans (and Americans with multi-region disc players capable of playing the PAL video standard) face a much happier situation in regards to Valerie. Second Run’s 2008 release (buy) has a picture that’s greatly improved versus the Facets edition, and includes a video introduction by Michael Brooke, an interview with a grown-up Jaroslava Schallerova, a newly-created trailer (seen above), and a booklet with two essays on the film.
Valerie is not available on Blu-ray at this time, although hopefully the movie’s growing cult reputation will make a deluxe release financially tenable in the future. We note that the Criterion Collection appears to have also secured the rights to Valerie when they landed Jires’ The Joke for their “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” collection, and have put up a copy of the film under their banner on Hulu (for Hulu Plus subscribers). This bodes well for an eventual restored Region 1 release.
UPDATE 12/28/2015: In 2015, The Criterion Collection finally came through with an R1 Blu-Ray & DVD release for Valerie (buy); those who couldn’t upgrade to the R2 Second Run release can now retire their Facets discs. Criterion has done a 4K digital restoration, so the picture quality is A1, probably the best you can see outside of having watched the film on its initial release. It’s presented in its aspect ratio of 1.37:1, so do not expect widescreen; it’s not a widescreen picture. The release also sports a new English subtitle translation from the original Czech.
Criterion usually shines in the extras department, and they don’t skimp on Valerie. Included from the Second Run release is that interview with Jaroslava Schallerova, but there’s also an interview with actor Jan Klusák and with Czechoslovak film expert/scholar Peter Hames, giving some background on the film. Three of Jires’ early short films are included; Uncle (1959), Footprints (1960) and The Hall Of Lost Footsteps (1960). But the extra that will probably of interest to new fans of the film is the alternate soundtrack by The Valerie Project that is synched to play along with the film, along with a featurette with members of The Valerie Project on how it originated. There’s also the very informative insert with an essay by critic Jana Prikryl.–update written by El Rob Hubbard