Friday, April 26, 2013

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

A lot of times when watching a surrealist film it’s a lot like watching a dream, but when viewing the Czech fantasy/horror Valerie and Her Week of Wonders it really feels like I’m the one that’s dreaming, wondering when someone is going to wake me. Here, the thoughts and images of the subconscious mind pervade, and the effect is that of surrealist automatism applied to film making. Saying the film is beautifully dreamlike, disorienting, and hallucinatory should not be mistaken as fan-boy code for a beautiful looking inept film with a messy plot. It’s actually quite the artistic achievement. The music and imagery are magical, to say the least, and the events are the stuff of dreams and nightmares of the child’s mind in the early stages of maturity, the accumulated fantasy-influenced imagination gathered during childhood coupled with the fears and wonders of a young girl’s coming-of-age.

The plot centers entirely around thirteen year old Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) and her first day (or week, I can't quite tell) of being a woman. She loves flowers, birds, and fruit, and her safety and security are connected to her magic earrings given to her by her mother, whom she knows to be deceased along with her father. She lives with her Grandmother (Helena Anýzová), and frequently consoles with a boy named Orlik (Petr Kopriva), whose creepy father, the Weasel (Jirí Prýmek), a boogeyman and one of the antagonists of the story, is a dead ringer for Nosferatu. Her world is like that of a fairytale, and her innocence and purity as well as her own wellbeing are threatened by a lecherous religious leader, Gracián (Jan Klusák), and vampires. Thankfully she has those magic earring pearls.




The story progresses most certainly without a sense of direction and one can never know what to expect as things get so far into the unreal that it sometimes becomes hard to believe what you’re seeing or to even wonder if what is being shown is even reliable from the narrative point.

Characters thought dead seem to pop up again. Valerie and Orlik slowly fall for each other, only they don’t yet know that they may or may not happen to be brother and sister, yet the story sort of keeps this uncertain due to the ambiguity of the Weasel’s identity since he’s a vampire, a constable, a bishop, and both figuratively and literally a weasel. It really tries to mystify who Valerie’s family is and her relationship to them, making things a bit confusing in the process.




Upon initial viewing, the film’s coherence seems practically nonexistent at times. Events can seem a bit random, and when taking almost any moment from the film into consideration, it becomes difficult to figure just how we got there and what events led up to that point. It’s not something I want to call a problem or an issue, because it seems to work in the film’s favor, successfully adding a charming mystique to the story, but it might be something that some viewers might have a difficult time with.

Nonetheless, there’s still something to be said about being enchanted by a difficult to follow film. I eventually started cueing in to the story a lot better upon repeat viewings, and I picked up on things I didn’t notice at first. For some reason, I didn’t catch on for a while that the blood drops on the flower Valerie would kneel down and pick up is an indication that she is bleeding and beginning menstruation for the first time. I thought we were looking at a bloody flower just because it looked cool, but everything means something, here, and it sometimes becomes easy to forget that, when getting absorbed into a movie that uses art to portray the facts.





The fantasy world portrayed in the film is like a world through the eyes of a child who's facing the inevitable hardships and fears that come with growing up. Certain upcoming prospects that would normally be expected from a girl in a little medieval town such as marriage are perceived in a gloomy light. 

Peculiarly enough, the idea of marriage is aligned with vampirism with a wedding between a village girl, Hedvica (Alena Stojáková), and a rich old farmer. Hedvica obviously seems miserable after the wedding, openly viewing it as the end of her hopes and dreams. On the evening of the consummation, the Weasel and Valerie’s grandmother visit unseen, and by drinking Hedvica’s blood Granny becomes young and beautiful, and Hedvica ends up under the curse and power of a vampire, as her vitality wilts away. Later she loses her fear and finds happiness after a sapphic encounter with Valerie, awkwardly much younger than she, and after sleeping with Valerie, Hedvica claims that Valerie’s kisses have made her healthy again, as she becomes cured of her vampire malediction.





During her supposed week of wonders, Valerie manages to land herself atop a burning stage, tied to a stake, in front of an angry mob. Public witch burnings are a horror mainstay, but I love the way it's done a bit differently, here, as Valerie maintains her wit and spirit while she’s tied to the post, admirably making faces, mocking and teasing the priest that’s accused her of being a witch, instead of spouting a curse on everyone, like most usually do.

The operatic conclusion is the most mesmerizing part and can probably be interpreted in a number of ways. It feels like the ending to a dream, with its world suddenly coming together, on the same plain, with Valerie at the center and the inhabitants and all the characters, including the antagonists (whom no longer seem to pose a threat anymore), on hand to see her off and at the same time beckon her. It’s like a grand carnival-like celebration of her adventure, now coming to a close, as she’s managed to maintain her purity, honor, and innocence after facing the obstacles during her awkward transition into womanhood. In an orgy of song and dance, she is driven by the enclosing crowd to a bed, and as the singing and dancing performers circling her disappear, she is finally able to sleep in a bed alone, in the middle of the forest, peacefully now that the dream/nightmare is over.



  
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders still manages to be quite captivating even considering its refusal (I’m reluctant to say inability) to tell a coherent story. It is almost as if coherence would’ve been a limitation. Without coherence, something quite different is achieved. Part of the idea might be to collectively express subconscious elements or feelings that would normally be repressed under more standard conditions.

Any way you look at it the film is still a delight and recommended to fans of surreal Gothic fantasy. I’m going to say horror too, though some feel that this shouldn’t be approached as a horror film. I love this kind of (to humor the critics) ‘arty-farty’ stuff, so it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t play out as a straightforward horror film. It’s creepy and has vampires and made me think of Alice in Wonderland if Jean Rollin had directed it. I hope that isn't an insult to Jaromil Jires’  film since Valerie and Her Week of Wonders doesn’t lean as heavily towards the exploitation side, but the sensibility I feel in Rollin’s work is still there.

(Artist Chet Loggins was inspired by Valerie and her Week of Wonders to create a magnificent series of paintings. Have a look at them on his blog Here.)




  

7 comments:

  1. This was such a strange film. My wife actually rented it, having no idea what she was getting, because it's not her type of movie at all lol. Needless to say, she didn't like it, but I was fascinated. I'm going to have to give it another watch.
    And yet again your ability to grab screenshots is astounding. I don't think most people pay much attention to how much time it takes to get such perfect screens.

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    1. Thanks, Jonny! I say it for a lot of the films I write about, but this one gets better and clearer, but not entirely clear, by rewatching. It really seems to be the type of movie that is meant to be rewatched. I had read about this film a lot before checking it out, and so I pretty much knew what I was getting myself into. I actually was planning on covering it before even watching it, one of those films you become a fan of before even seeing it.

      Thanks for the compliments regarding the images. For me the images are an important part of the experience I want readers to have. Valerie has a ton of great images, so it was hard to pick which ones would best capture the allure of the film.

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  2. A real oniric experience!
    I liked it so much that i recovered the work of Nezval!

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    1. Ah, yes! I had forgotten to mention that the film is an adaptation to a book of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, written in 1945.

      Thanks, Luigi! Oniric perfectly sums up this film's effect.

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  3. In Italy the film was called: "Fantasie di una tredicenne". :)

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  4. Great film! And very underappreciated to be sure. Took me a few viewings for everything to sink in, but finally I was so enchanted by it that I decided to do a series of paintings based on the film. You can see them here: http://clogginsart.blogspot.com/2013/03/my-valerie-project-painting-4-valerie.html

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    1. Thanks Chet! I really like your oval portraits. I've linked to the entire series in the main body of the article; fans of this film should really appreciate your work.

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