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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie a Tyden Divu

Jaromil Jires

Czechoslovakia, 1970

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 11 July 2004

Source Facets DVD

In a haze of overexposure and soft-focus, a young girl in a white, lacy dress swims among water-lilies, nibbles fruit, and smells the summer flowers in a field swarming with bees and birds. The film’s alluring title, the delicate flutes and harps ringing on the soundtrack, and the fleshy, but somehow stale quality of the Eastmancolor film stock set the stage for some vintage European art house pornography. What we get, however, is something slightly more complicated.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is principally a parable of menstruation, a bizarre gothic fable of a young woman’s maturation into womanhood. In the opening scenes, the beatific Valerie loses her pendulous earrings (only to regain them later), blood drips upon a daisy, and soon, Valerie declares to her grandmother that she is “not a child anymore.” The film’s symbolism is alternately subtle and overt, and provides a gauzy tapestry of intoxicating and unsettling images that drives a rather cryptic narrative.

Certainly, the film’s subtext of sexual awakening bears the mark of many contemporary sex-romps, but Valerie immediately distinguishes itself in its level of menace, which is largely personified by the figure of the Weasel. This character (who is alternately referred to as the Constable, the Bishop, and, more humbly, ”Richard”) seems to be a distant cousin of Murnau’s Nosferatu — white-faced, black-cloaked, and more hideous than Max Schreck, Klaus Kinski, and Willem Dafoe combined. The Weasel, who may or may not be Valerie’s father, lurks throughout the film, lecherously grinning and groping at the young girl. A powerful, shape-shifting vampire with an appetite for chicken blood, the Weasel even enlists Valerie’s creepy, sallow grandmother into his plan to ensnare and manhandle the young girl. Valerie’s only compatriot against these perverse, supernatural forces is Eagle, a charming young suitor who may or may not be her brother.

Needless to say, this very puzzling set of familial relations, combined with the persistent threat of incest, confounds the erotic potentials of the film. (Even the film’s climactic scene, a bacchanalian orgy in a forest, does nothing to ease these concerns.) But similarly, the film’s most sinister aspects are quickly defused by the indefatigable Valerie, whose implacable innocence keeps her smiling even in the face of rape or execution.

With its shifting moods and its fairy tale symbolism of youth and age, sexuality and death, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is part opaque folk tale and part Gothic horror (with lusty priests and vampires straight out of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk or Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian). But its elliptical narrative structure and cryptic imagery place it firmly within the tradition of the Czech avant-garde. The film was directed by Jaromil Jires, a key member of the Czech New Wave, and was adapted from a novel of the same name by Vitezslav Nezval, poet, novelist, screenwriter, and principal founder of the Czech Surrealist Group (of which Jan Svankmajer was later a member). Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is characteristic of its creators’ work in its editing non-sequiturs and narrative experimentation. In particular, Nezval was noted for his combination of surrealism and socialism, and his flouting of narrative conventions as a means of challenging the “bourgeoisie” of realism. But while it maintains much of the original story’s ambiguity Jires’ adaptation seems to elide the political subtext of Nezval’s work. Nonetheless, the film manages to strike a curiously equivocal position as both an ethereal, erotic fantasy and a formally demanding exploration of the grotesque.

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