A surreal tale of phantasmagoric sexual horror, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders remains a cornerstone of Czech New Wave cinema. Based on a once-obscure novel by Vítězslav Nezval, an avant-garde writer who spearheaded the Czech Republic’s surrealist movement, Valerie explores early female sexuality with a hallucinatory mix of Pre-Raphaelitian romance and psychedelic-noir.
A film that gained a minor cult following among foreign horror-film aficionados, Valerie faded into cinematic obscurity, surfacing every now and then at exclusive screenings throughout the years. Because of its touchy subject matter (a young pubescent and virginal girl exploring her sexuality with her father, brother, priest, women, and an assortment of zombies and vampires), a wide overseas release for the film was curtailed in many countries. This is probably down to the fact that the film’s leading actress was underage at the time, and the feverishly shifty sequences of incest gave pause to many. But the film’s power rests entirely in its magnetic and darkly erotic imagery, which captivates as much as it disturbs.
With no real beginning of a narrative, Valerie opens with its titular character having a pair of magic earrings stolen from her. These earrings seemingly hold the power to teleport its heroine to safety when she is in moments of danger, a trick she will use now and then whenever confronted with the sexually-hungry monsters that litter the township. Valerie spends her time languidly circling the town, watching from a curious distance the madness that begins to rise amid the religious processions and witch hunts. Her creepy and devious grandmother makes shady deals with the town priest, who is sometimes a vampire and sometimes Valerie’s surrogate father.
A young, handsome nobleman (who is sometimes a vagrant and sometimes Valerie’s brother) appears on the scene to help Valerie when she is in trouble, although it is usually Valerie who comes to his rescue. At some point the priest (mysteriously revived from his death by suicide) blames Valerie for sexually enticing him and forcing him into sinful lust. He then organizes a burning-at-the-stake and Valerie is tied to a post and set on fire. Before any harm can be done, her magic earrings (earlier returned to her by her brother/nobleman/vagrant friend) transport her out of the flames and danger. But the horrors of the day are not yet over, and Valerie must navigate her way through a waking nightmare that threatens to destroy her in her struggle to grow up.
Because of the dreamlike ellipses in the narrative, the film’s editing causes havoc upon the fluidity of the story. We’re never quite sure of exactly what has taken place because before any narrative lead can be followed through, the scene abruptly cuts away to an altogether separate (and non-related) action taking place. In any other film, this would be a disruptive interference, but it works highly in Valerie’s favour, since much of what were are watching is a thoroughly inconsistent, non-literal dream. The weirdly approximated bodies are splayed across the screen, erotically arranged, and often uncomfortably adjacent to the more unadulterated actions of the young Valerie. Filmmaker Jaromil Jireš presents a deliberate and concise display of horror and sex, merging the two elements in moments when his leading lady encounters yet another taboo-shattering incident of violence. It may not have been Jireš’ intention for such a haphazard approach to the film’s editing but, in any case, it marks the story with a confusion and panic that settles beautifully into the film’s eerily oneiric logic.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders was released in 1970, but Criterion’s sparkling transfer renders the film new and fresh. With only some minor instances of dirt and speckles in the film grain, the transfer glows with the lush and sensual palette of colours both earthy and regal. Sound and dialogue come through clearly, and the haunting and coolly sinister soundtrack bathes the atmosphere with little to no distortion. Included on the disc’s supplements are some early short films by Jireš that had not previously been readily available; these films present a rising and unique star in the Czech Republic’s new wave movement of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Also included is a very interesting interview with the film’s leading star, Jaroslava Schallerová, who details her experience working on the film as a minor. She also discusses her life after making the film, noting that many of the films she has made in her career have yet to be seen and still continue to languish in the vaults. An interview with a film scholar about the film, an essay booklet, and a new alternate psych-folk soundtrack with which you can view the film nicely round out the package.
Jireš’ lustrous sexual dream of adult horrors and pubescent fears is performed with an equal mix of doe-eyed composure and impetuous, operatic violence. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders presents adolescent desires as if it were a raging ocean of mercury – beautiful and deadly all at once. America’s teenage dramas have all the flair and depth of a shampoo commercial; between the product placements and feigned (and grossly misinterpreted) displays of angst, their impressions leave markings no deeper than a Sharpie pen. But in the deeply-rooted dreams of Valerie, there is a more pressing and uncanny reality at work; a semiotic truth reveals a young girl walking the pathways of blood to the mysterious summits of adulthood. In his altogether inhuman and corporeal world of sexual joy and curious terrors, Jireš perfects a stunning composition of a young girl’s rite of passage.