With vampires all the rage and a cinema smitten with mind-bending narratives built around the generic staple of the “unreliable narrator,” what better time is there to have a look at Czech director Jaromil Jires’ provocative 1970 cult film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders?
First coming to the world’s attention with his 1963 debut feature The Cry (exhibited at Cannes), a film of documentary realism and social criticism that displeased his native government, Jires found his talents put on hold as Czechoslovakia’s state-supported film industry turned down script after script he subsequently submitted for production. It wasn’t until 1968 that Jires reappeared on the scene with The Joke, adapted from the novel by Milan Kundera as an ambitious drama attacking totalitarianism.
I’ve yet to see either of those films, but based on what I discovered with Valerie, I’d be eager to explore more of his works. While Jires is typically noted as one of the earliest directors associated with the movement known as the Czech New Wave, it’s fair to say he should also be more popularly recognized for creating this truly unique film that should be spotlighted in any history of 1970s horror.
Mix themes of emerging female sexuality and Czech folk legends into the dream logic of Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr; blend in the experimental daring of Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess and Jan Svankmajer’s Alice; sprinkle with the sinister humor of Jose Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe epics, and you get some sense of the weird spell cast by this creepy and poetic account of 13-year-old Valerie’s (Jaroslava Schallerova) twisted odyssey through the early stirrings of adolescence.
The film opens with a classic scene of invasion–a device dating as far back on film as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—when a strange man invades Valerie’s room and steals a pair of earrings from her as she sleeps. Upon awakening, Valerie discovers she’s entered a new stage of life when she receives her first period, dripping menstrual blood upon a flower. Valerie shares this development with her grandmother (Helena Anyzova, delivering a truly uncanny performance), her deathly pale and aloof guardian, who encourages her to play hostess to visiting missionaries.
Valerie’s attention is quickly drawn to a group of traveling performers passing beneath her window, and sees (for what will be merely the first of many encounters) a chalk-white, bald, grotesquely toothy figure bearing more than a passing resemblance to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok garbed in flowing black robes reminiscent of Bengt Ekerot’s figure of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
As the story progresses—perhaps it’s better to say floats oddly onward—the young Valerie disturbingly becomes an object of lust for nearly every member of her family. When her aged grandmother makes a pact with the vampiric monster to trade eternal life in exchange for the inheritance of the household, it is suggested that the creature may represent Valerie’s departed father, returning to feast on his own daughter’s blood in hopes of reincarnating himself.
Appearing then on the scene is a man who declares himself to be her brother and protector—but, as the film soon reveals, absolutely no one in Valerie’s life is to be trusted alone with her. While curiously observing men and women of the town openly and heatedly coupling in various sweaty combinations, Valerie is repeatedly assaulted by near-rapes as a “plague of chickens” and visions of ghouls erupt in the town.
In this vampire story, religious figures are to be feared just as much as the undead, when one of the visiting missionaries corners Valerie in her bedroom and rips open his robe to run his fingers across his hairy chest while praising the attractiveness of Valerie’s breasts. Given magic talismans earlier in the film, Valerie manages to escape many perils, repelling the repellent “holy man” and later freeing herself from being burned alive at the stake when she is accused—surprise!—of being a witch after begging off sex with her tormentors.
Eventually, Valerie is brought into an erotic and frightful confrontation with the bloodsucker claiming to be her father, and just when it appears the girl may have emerged intact from the nightmarishly bizarre series of events seemingly unleashed by the onset of her puberty, the film leaves us just as uncertain of the nature of reality as Christopher Nolan’s Inception would four decades later.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a real find (check around and you’ll discover I’m hardly alone in that opinion), and a neglected work of subversive horror and fantasy filmmaking. The cinematography of Jan Curik, production design by Ester Krumbachova, and costumes by Eva Lackingerova are effectively fused into a potent work of surrealism that calls to mind not only the work of Lewis Carroll, but the cheeky aesthetics of ‘70s softcore erotica and a bewitching approach to nightmare folklore found in little-seen films like Russia’s Viy.
Also due for special recognition is the editing work done by Josef Valusiak, who assists Jires in twisting and turning the feeling of sequences from the oddly beautiful to the amusing to the eerie to the shocking, over and over and over again, constantly toying with your expectations.
The movie is fixed in the logic and style of dreams throughout, making it one in which you will either “go with the flow” early on or, if you demand less enigmatic storytelling, quickly abandon out of frustration. The soundtrack, mostly consisting of post-dubbed dialogue, contains a dynamic and unsettling mix of music and sound effects that adds to the otherworldly nature of the story.
Other reviews for the film have touched on its wealth of historic symbolism. While I don’t doubt the movie is rich with added meanings, I have to confess I haven’t the background in Czech folklore or history to effectively discuss them. No doubt there’s an entirely other level at which others can and will appreciate the film; I can only report that “simply” as a work of surrealism, shock, and inflammatory eroticism, it more than rewards viewers who might similarly lack the chops to engage in roundtable analyses of any buried sociopolitical themes. As for how the film deals with a very young protagonist’s sexual awakening, I will say that the picture is explicit enough to feel incendiary while avoiding true exploitation. The possibility that any viewers might derive the wrong kind of satisfaction from a film this steeped in its artistry would be, I’ll say it plainly, beyond the scope of my commentary.
Put even more directly: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a must-see for fans of the macabre and a genuine cult masterwork. It’s the perfect film for those seeking a bracing antidote to the routine, the predictable, the safe, and the uninspiring. It’s a stunning revelation that, even in the midst of a suffocating deluge of vampire-themed product and stories that trade in teasing and tricking audiences with now-you-believe-it, now-you-don’t meditations on the nature of reality, those things can instantly seem fresh and exciting all over again.