Valerie_and_Her_Week_of__Wonders

This 1970 film comes from the surrealist wing of the Czechoslovak New Wave and would have made a great double feature with Daisies back when cinemas embraced that value for money idea.

Like its title partly suggests, this is a film about a thirteen year old girl called Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), and the first week she spends as a menstruating female. As for wonders, there are plenty of those, believe me. In fact, considering the film was made in the wake of the Prague Spring, when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush recent reforms, the biggest wonder is how it actually came to be made.

Valerie

Jireš’s previous directorial outing had been The Joke (1969), an anti-Stalinist parable adapted from a novel by Milan Kundera. This earned a twenty year long ban and has been named as ‘possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country’ by critic Amos Vogel.

Next up, Jireš set his sights on adapting a surrealist novel of 1935 by Vítězslav Nezval, who was also a poet, screenwriter and prominent Czech Communist of the interwar years. If he hadn’t been so highly regarded by the party, then the phantasmagoria that is Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders would surely have been a non-starter.

Valerie a týden divů, to give it its Czech title, is one of the most difficult films that I can think of to describe and any rundown of what happens onscreen is never going to be able to convey the magic of what viewers of the film can experience.

I’ll give you a flavour, though. It’s shot mainly around Slavonice, a gorgeous small town that belonged in 1970 to Moravia but which is now part of South Bohemia. It’s never stated when this is all taking place but if I had to guess I’d say maybe the middle of the nineteenth century.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_Grandma

Valerie lives with her Grandmother (Helena Anýzová), a pious woman, who has pure white hair which she scrapes away from her face into a very severe bun. She also has the kind of skin complexion that Goths would absolutely adore. This is not a woman whose list of hobbies would include sunbathing.

She longs for her past when she was young and beautiful (although she is obviously still strangely attractive and looks like she could still be in her early thirties). Luckily, for her at least, she will be presented with the chance of eternal youth in exchange for the house that Valerie was supposed to eventually inherit.

Valerie regularly meets up with a poet and minstrel named Eaglet who wears a boater and looks a little hippyish with his long sideburns and John Lennon style glasses. She also repeatedly comes across a grotesque looking character known as Weasel, a vampire who morphs into a constable and a bishop and has the kind of hideous pointy teeth that make Shane MacGowan’s nashers look like Tom Cruise’s. He’s maybe also the Devil and Eaglet’s father.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_The_Weasel

According to creepy missionary Father Gracián, who later tears off his cassock and attempts to molest her, Valerie’s father was a bishop, so maybe Weasel is her father, and therefore Eaglet might be her brother.

Identities here are fluid. Her Grandmother – who is also a vampire – might be her distant cousin Elsa or even her mother. Or maybe this is just the same actress playing a number of roles. Yeah, I happily admit that I’m confused by this not remotely coherent plot.

As I wrote in my previous post about Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky, for maximum viewing pleasure it’s probably best not to analyse events onscreen too closely as this would likely suck any enjoyment out of your viewing experience.

Just enjoy the startling imagery and the utterly enchanting pastoral score by one of Czechoslovakia’s leading composers, Luboš Fišer. This is a true marvel. Fragile and haunting, it’s the perfect accompaniment to such a beautifully dreamlike and disorienting film.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_Ending

Influences would seem to include middle-European fairy-tales, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lewis Carroll – like Alice, Valerie is oddly accepting of the constant hallucinatory craziness around her, even when she finds herself tied to a stake, about to be burnt publicly as a witch. The most important influence, though, is maybe dream/nightmare logic.

Jireš never makes it explicit if what we are seeing is really happening or only dreams or daydreams conjured up by Valerie. At one point she does say ‘This is only a dream’, which is fine by me.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_Bed

Rudé právo, the regime’s propaganda filled newspaper, was far from happy, calling for ‘other films, films for audiences, films for today, films for a socialist person’, in a highly negative review. For the rest of the decade Jireš was forced into the the kind of thing that would find more favour with the Communist authorities, mainly arts documentaries featuring opera and ballet. A huge pity.

Valerie would be the only film of his that could be categorised as surrealist. He did, though, describe it as his favourite.

The film only made only a brief appearance in Czechoslovak picture houses but was the last New Wave film from that country to be met with international acclaim, deservedly being selected for screenings at a number of highly regarded festivals worldwide.

Since then, its reputation has slowly grown and today, it’s widely hailed as a cult classic.

If you liked Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, you might also like November (2017). Set in a barren and northerly landscape, this Estonian fantasy film has to be one of the most inventive and strangest dramas of recent international cinema.

In Rolling Stone, Peter Travis proclaimed it ‘a new midnight-movie classic’ and in Louder Than War, I called it ‘Midway between Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and an animation by Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer.’

There’s love spells, a day of the dead, human sized chickens, werewolves, a talking pig, plague and kratts – bizarre contraptions that look as if they’ve been mostly made from junk but which can speak and fly and cause all kinds of mischief.

For more on the film: https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/november/