As Valerie enters womanhood, with the coming of her first period, there also comes the arrival of some strange new characters in town, a thief breaks into her house at night to steal her earrings which sparks off a series of extraordinary events and encounters. There is also a new Bishop, who when he isn’t thundering out sermons on the preciousness of innocence, he is turning the town into vampires, or trying to seduce her Grandmother. The thief becomes her friend, then her lover, and later her brother. The Grandmother disappears only to return looking somewhat younger and claiming to be her Aunt; only one thing is clear and that is everyone seems focused on Valerie. Valerie holds a power and it seems everyone wants a piece of it; including a lecherous local priest and a young newlywed who has been trapped in a loveless marriage with an older man. What ensues is a bizarre tale of sexual awakening in which nothing is quite what it seems.
Fantasy, Surrealism, Gothic, Fairytale, Coming of Age, Vampires, Religion.
|Jaromil Jires||(screenplay) &|
|Helena Anýzová||…||Babicka / Elsa / Matka / Rusovláska|
|Karel Engel||…||Kocí Ondrej|
- Running time: 73 mins.
- Classification: 15.
Not being one to make life easy for myself I thought I would pick this piece of Czech surrealist wonderment for today’s review. It is another title which has been on my ‘to review’ list for sometime, but as it will become apparent it is not the easiest of films to write about. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (based on Vítězslav Nezval‘s 1945 novel of the same name) is a chef-d’oeuvre in Gothic cinema unsurpassed in my mind by nothing else so beautifully haunting as far as the imagery goes. Challenging at times, the story follows no rational structure instead taking the form of a series of dreamscapes as Valerie begins her sexual awakening. Perhaps to make things a little easier it might help to start out by saying this film was a direct influence on Angela Carter’s script for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984). Company follows the same themes, but in a more coherent form, and so if you have seen it, it will provide a perfect reference point (and if you haven’t I would say it makes an excellent companion piece). The only other difference being is Company uses the metaphor of werewolves to explore the underlying themes, while in Valerie it is vampires.
It all begins in the week Valerie starts her first period, and with it signals the coming of womanhood and the sexuality surrounding that. This awakening is explored through a series of strange dreams (although this is not explicit) which involve a myriad of remarkable characters who seem to morph into different roles as the tale develops. Friend/lover/brother, grandmother/aunt, bishop/sheriff/father, nothing is clear which further confuses the matter. Underpinning this is a twisted fairytale of sorts with the arrival of an ominous bishop who starts turning the town into vampires. Because of the non linear structure of this tale it has been widely compared, in nature not content, to Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland which is not surprising given there is a definate influence at some level.
As Valerie attempts to navigate herself around this strange new world we find, like those around her in this surreal universe which is fluid and ever-changing, that the nature of her character changes from scene to scene. This moves on a spectrum of two extremes which flows back and forth from a voyeur bathed in childish innocence to a fully fledged Lolita figure who munches provocatively on fruit like Eve tempting Adam with an apple. Meanwhile Valerie negotiates a new identity based on the power of sex. Many themes are explored through this framework, some of which touch on the controversial, such as incest, lesbianism, and the hypocrisy of religion. Valerie has not been without some controversy. The reason of which surrounds the lead actress Jaroslava Schallerová being only 14 when filming, but seen a couple of times throughout the sotry in a state of partial nudity. The film has come under minor criticism for this aspect with those asking the question whether or not that was absolutely necessary. However it is important to highlight these scenes, maybe misguided or not, do not appear salacious in tone and work within the unfolding narrative.
Jaromil Jirez has made some bold stylistic statements for his palette with the primary colour base being set at black and white. In fact there is hardly any colour to be seen which gives the film a striking visual quality. To add to this there is some amazing imagery to behold. For all lovers of the gothic as an art form this this film is a spectacle that really needs to be seen. We have dark, macabre visuals which flow through the piece as an underlying structure, an additional thematic element of Czech folklore which gives the overall feeling a distinctly European flavour and plenty of religious icons to nicely top things off. Twinned with the spectacular costumes on show (especially the vampires) and mesmerizing performances, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a cinematic experience you really just want to soak up, if you can get your head around the challenging nature which comes with the surrealist format of the film.
Personally I absolutely loved this film and it is one I can watch again and again and discover new and wonderful things about it that I never noticed before, but I do accept this really is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is hard to get your head round, but if you keep an open mind and just go with the flow of it, it is very worthwhile. Enchanting and beautiful, when it comes to gothic cinema Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a hard act to follow.