Published Jun 30, 2015As noted in the interview with film scholar Pater Hames and film critic Jana Prikryl in the Blu-ray supplements for the Criterion release of Jaromil Jire' abstract softcore fantasy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, this film was released at a strange time.
Throughout the '60s the Czech New Wave was in full force, with directors like Jire, Vera Chytilová, Milo Forman and Jirí Menzel crafting satirical tragicomedies and narratively stylistic, formally challenging works. Like other, similar movements emerging throughout Europe at the time, part of the idea was to analyze and experiment with the conventions of cinema and the reality presented, either confronting audience expectation or eschewing the safety of the traditional literary template in favour of an experiential format, allowing the presentation to reflect the inherent critique of the message within.
When Valerie was released, Jire' previous feature, The Joke — a satire of life under a Communist regime — had been banned by the state, along with any other films that challenged the idea of Socialist harmony. While Valerie was never outright banned, it was censured and marginalized by authorities. It was refused entry into film festivals outside of the country and wasn't given the sort of exposure and approval that Jire' The Cry found upon release in 1964.
Initially, Valerie did present as the sort of folklore that would be acceptable under the veil of socialist realism. The titular Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a 13-year-old experiencing her first menses — an actuality represented by the redness of her lips after perpetually devouring the red berries that are omnipresent — uses her magic earrings to deflect the lascivious advances of her vampire patriarch and her scheming grandmother, who plans to sacrifice the girl to reclaim her own youth. But what Jire is interested in, more so than reiterating the tropes of a fable, is to distort the reality of what appears concrete.
Valerie's sexual awakening isn't simply that of avoiding temptation; it's filled with abstract hallucinations and maximalist imagery that exaggerates horror, innocence and lust with a vibrant colour palette. More challenging is Jire tendency to insert inexplicable metaphors — an army of men whipping a fountain or a potential lover (maybe brother) repeatedly popping up around water, bound in chains — that shake the foundations of what we, as an audience, understand as the grounded reality.
While the idea of blending sexuality and horror was pretty standard for the time, the blending of the obvious — red lips, an entirely white bedroom (sanctuary) and elders represented as vampires feeding on youth — and the abstract — disorienting edits, disembodied dialogue and gothic backdrops hidden amidst an otherwise pastoral village — was a peculiarity for the time. It's also noteworthy that Valerie herself remains unaffected by the monstrous (lightly pornographic) sexuality and deviance surrounding her. Even at a point when she's set to be burned at the stake, she remains flippant towards those that simultaneously objectify and vilify her for having the sexuality they both desire and fear.
And thought Valerie and Her Week of Wonders wouldn't be considered a feminist narrative — it's the sort of late night perversion that has enough nudity and lesbian sex to cater to straight male viewers regardless of the politics within — Valerie remains intact throughout her odyssey. She's not a passive victim, nor are we led to believe that her sexuality is shameful. In a way, she's presented — despite being framed with obvious objectification — as a heroine, and we're being presented with the mishmash of Catholic guilt and exaggerated vulgarity of what sexuality initially appears to be as we grapple to understand it in our youth.
This, along with the obvious cult appeal of such a unique film, explains the underground cult status of the film. Throughout the years, Valerie has screened at several arthouse festivals and has been the subject of much discussion amidst film academics. It's even been the subject of a musical experiment by a group of folk musicians in the U.S.
The Valerie Project came together to re-score the film with a psych-folk score that enhances the eeriness of the visuals, exploiting the music video quality of the dreamlike style. It's also included with the Criterion release, generating a very different and altogether intriguing viewing experience.