Beginning with Jaroslava Schallerová’s glance directly into the camera, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders instantly and insistently unravels in playful nods of incongruous and intentionally self-conscious stylization. Directed by Jaromil Jireš, this 1970 feature, in classic art film tradition, takes a basic narrative with reasonably standard character types and turns the whole thing topsy-turvy via stunning imagery, a proliferation of ambiguous symbolism, and a structure that leads to places quite unexpected, if certain sequences lead anywhere at all. It certainly is a wondrous week for young Valerie, and the film itself is equally astounding.
After Eaglet (Petr Kopriva) steals Valerie’s (Schallerová) magical earrings, apparently at the behest of the Constable (Jirí Prýmek), otherwise referred to/existing as the malicious Polecat, a vampire-type monster who terrorizes a small Czech town, an opaque quest to retain ownership of the crucial jewelry is initiated. And thus begins a fantastic journey as Valerie delves deeper into the rabbit hole of her own existence. The film picks up as the 13-year-old girl enters a confusing and evocative phase of dramatic personal revelation and change—physical change (her first period) and spiritual change (the nature of mortality)—as well as a time rife with external conflicts and incidents far beyond her control and initial understanding. Valerie’s vivid awakening leads to discoveries regarding her town, her home, and even the composition of her family.
With some degree of regret, Eaglet returns the earrings to Valerie and the two fall in love. As the film progresses, details emerge involving the girl’s supposedly deceased parents, the dubious past and currently suspicious intentions of her grandmother (Helena Anyžová), and the true nature of the Polecat. None of this is as it seems, at least not for long, at least not as far as we can gather. As Valerie’s grandmother relates the story of the girl’s late parents, the ghastly woman expresses a foreboding anxiousness, hinting at the fallibility of her recounting. Was Valerie’s father really a bishop? Is the grandmother’s former lover the evil Constable? Is Eaglet Valerie’s brother? How does one explain Anyžová’s appearance as not only the grandmother but also Valerie’s cousin and mother?
Given the film’s recurrent fairy tale iconography, how much of what happens in Valerie is therefore magic put into practice or pure adolescent fantasy is up for debate. In her essay, “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Grandmother, What Big Fangs You Have!”, included with the new Criterion Collection release of the film, Jana Prikryl accurately states: “Valerie jolts along with the logic of a hallucination, its more conventional vampire plot intercut with odd visions and heightened by a soundtrack of choral chants and disembodied dialogue. Sometimes these dislocations bring us intimately close to Valerie herself, from various appealing angles, and on a second or third viewing you see how these shots often punctuate moments of conflict, as if Valerie’s inner equanimity were guiding the course of events.” Symbolism runs rampant, and as the suggestive imagery collides with the disjunctive narrative, the film becomes an allegory of contrasting dark and light, black and white, life and death, youth and old age. “Is all this but a dream?” Valerie ponders toward the end of film. Indeed, that may also be a possibility.
Schallerová, selected for the title role from about 1,500 young girls, gives a captivating performance with a compelling mixture of wide-eyed youthful wonder and surprisingly redolent sensuality. As this is a time of great change for pubescent Valerie, in terms of her own sexuality and her perception of related issues affecting those who surround her, the symbolism in the film forms along strong feminine themes. The impression of virginal female purity is suggested through the whiteness that adorns and envelops Valerie—her clothes and her stark white bedroom—and in the various incarnations of floral imagery and similarly associated signifiers, as well as in the more literal depictions of budding young maidens innocently splashing about in the water. Against the religious and moral rigor of the town, such provocative sexuality is made all the more pronounced, and Jan Curík’s corresponding cinematography has the gauzy luster that one would commonly see throughout the 1970s, particularly in soft-core European explorations of sexuality and womanhood. Along these lines, it’s worth acknowledging the production design by Ester Krumbachová, who also helped create the extraordinary world of Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), another fantastic Czech film about women coming to terms with their own identity and social placement. While Krumbachová’s specific contributions alone may not explicitly influence the feminine themes in the two films, the parallels are nonetheless noteworthy.
Complementing the naturally picturesque surroundings, Jireš films from high and low canted angles, incorporates an array of ethereal color, and composes singular still images that heighten the movie’s surreal beauty. As Jonathan Rosenbaum recently wrote of the film, “Virtually every shot is a knockout.” Of the three Jireš shorts included on the Criterion disc—Uncle (1959), Footprints (1960), and The Hall of Lost Footsteps (1960)—only the latter really comes close to approximating the avant-garde style and structure of Valerie. The Hall of Lost Footsteps is also simply the most interesting of the trio, with its powerfully disturbing political content (covering the Holocaust and the atomic bomb) and its striking formal experimentation, which also makes it undeniably akin to Valerie.
In an informative and concise interview, film scholar Peter Hames notes the mutability of Valerie’s categorization: is it soft porn (definitely not), fantasy, horror, art film, or all or none of the above? As he points out, it is, in any case, continually surprising; nothing at any time goes quite as one expects. With an equally surreal novel as its source, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders combines gothic and fairy tale conventions with Lubos Fiser’s whimsical score into what Hames says is a “montage film,” visually and aurally. It certainly is a fascinating confluence of spectacular, disconnected images and sounds, oftentimes exaggerated performance, and symbolism primed for diverse interpretation, all coalescing into one extraordinary motion picture. If this was indeed the last film of the Czech New Wave (roughly 1963-69), as Hames argues it is, at least the movement went out on a high note.
– Jeremy Carr