Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Jaromil Jireš
So, this was definitely my first 1970’s Chechoslovak surrealist horror film. I’ve read the 1945 novel this film was based on, by Vítězslav Nezval, and I’ll be frank in saying that both the film and the novel are resistant to being understood fully. Let’s jump in, shall we?
The film follows, in a not-always-linear fashion, the experiences of Valerie over a week of supernatural events. She’s in the care of her Grandma and seems to be in a religious household and town. Now, the role of religion in the film is interesting. It is definitely something that Valerie, her Grandma, the clergy, and villagers perform, but nobody really seems to be religious. It serves more as a way to cover up indiscretions and mask darker tendencies.
The premise, as I can ascertain from the surrealism gone wild, is that Valerie has become a woman, by virtue of her first menstrual period. This sexual awakening spurs everything into action. A mysterious man who may be Valerie’s secret brother, Orlik, is in love with her, a vampire known as the Polecat/Bishop/Constable/potential father of Valerie rolls into town, and straight-laced Grandma becomes a vampire so she can achieve eternal youth. The price? Giving the Polecat the house Valerie is set to inherit. She then turns into a young woman named Elsa who comes masquerading as Valerie’s long-lost cousin so she can seduce local villagers and suck their blood.
Long story short, Valerie uses her magical earrings to stay alive and get rid of the Polecat (and avoids being burnt at the stake for witchcraft somewhere in between) and her Grandma returns as her dear babička once again. Valerie’s parents, who were banished by her Grandma years ago and are apparently not dead, come back and Valerie lives happily ever after. At least, I can only assume she lives happily ever after because the film ends in a vaguely orgy-like festival in which the entire cast and village dance in circles around her as she lies in a bed in the middle of the forest. Surrealists, am I right?
Now, let’s get to some takeaways. The constant depiction of women is interesting. I should note that both the author of the book, Vítězslav Nezval, and the director of the film, Jaromil Jireš, are men. Therefore, whatever depictions that are being set forth are through some sort of male gaze, although I admit any absolute truths are hard to pull from this film. Images of Valerie in bed are consistently spread out. Since I read this as a film depicting the sexual awakening of a young woman, it makes sense why that would be a symbol. She is often depicted in a virginal white slip, and in contrast to the promiscuous women who work at the house.
The imagery Jireš uses is heavy handed, what with the bloody flowers and white dresses and whatnot, but it does not become overbearing. Birds also appear often, as messengers and bystanders and food for the vampire Polecat/Bishop/Constable. Maybe someone else can make sense of that; I haven’t yet.
The most intriguing part of the film for me, narratively, is the emphasis placed upon the community women enjoy together. Valerie spies upon the local women bathing erotically in the river (laughing and kissing and dropping fish down their slips for fun, as ladies do on a girl’s day), and she has a close relationship with her neighbor Hedvika. Hedvika has recently married a much older man and undergoes a sad and uncomfortable wedding night, and is bitten by a vampire that same evening. She spends one night with Valerie, and is healed. I’ll admit I am not quite sure about their relationship, as it seems the line between friendship and romantic tryst is blurry. There is also a local flower girl who regularly follows Valerie and gives her boughs of vines and flowers. It seems to always have a tone of eroticism when women are together. I think this could be a portrayal of sexual exploration and acceptance of love between women, but I am also wary of it being an erotic indulgence from a male director. Regardless, the communion the women have in this film, besides creepy Grandma Elsa, is interesting.
Overall, this film is a beautiful and strange wonder. The imagery is at times heavy-handed, but Jireš creates such intentional images and montages that it pulls itself off. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a must see if you’re seeking a shorter film that will be visually memorable and surreal, or if you just dig that cobweb aesthetic.
- Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie
- Helena Anýzová as Babicka/Elsa/Matka/Rusovláska
- Petr Kopriva as Orlík
- Jirí Prýmek as Tchor-konstábl
- Jan Klusák as Gracián
- Libuse Komancová as Sluzka-novicka
- Karel Engel as Kocí Ondrej
- Alena Stojáková as Hedvika
- Otto Hradecký as Statkár