It is always good to look at something different within the genres we like.
And different is the word for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a 1970 Czech fantasy film by Jaromil Jireš, which is sort of a cult and had been on my “to watch” list for a while now.
Surreal, macabre, sexy and very weird, Valerie is the sort of movie that reconciles me with fantasy – a million light years from muscular barbarians and spitfire dragons, it’s sort of a journey into a dream landscape that baffles and fascinates.
What is this stuff all about?
Valerie is a 13 years old girl living in a village somewhere and sometime – the time-frame of the story is dubious: costumes are sort of 19th century, but a lot of the references are much earlier.
Valerie is at the heart of a mystery – she owns a pair of magical earrings (her dead – or maybe only vanished – mother’s), is menaced by a number of vampiric creatures that want her youth and her life force, is lost in a world that is not our own. Everiday certainties acquire the grotesque shape of horror – her grandmother turns into a vampire – or the mythical aura of legend.
There is a vague hint of Alice in Wonderland here and there, but it’s a steamier, more openly dark and Gothic sort of Wonderland.
The movie is based on a novel by Communist poet Vítězslav Nezval, that described is book (published in 1935) as
“concretely irrational psychic collage freely borrowing from the genre of so-called pulp literature everything belonging to the nethermost regions of our unconscious.”
Yes – one finds pulp in the strangest places, these days.
And now the book is on my “to read” list – it was translated in English in 2005.
It sounds like the sort of thing I’d like to add to my collection.
Jaromil Jireš shot Valerie in a time of censorship and repression, when the socialist regime of Czechoslovakia favored “realistic” cinema, and admitted fantasy only in the form of traditional fairy tales because fairy tales were part of the national culture.
By adopting a fairy tale structure, Jireš was able to direct a very subversive film, laced with vitriolic observations on tradition, religion and “normal life” (an example, the wedding scene in which the mourning liturgy replaces the nuptial rites).
In doing so, he created a sinister, disturbing movie of incredible beauty.
There is also a certain feeling of kinkiness to the film – Jaroslava Schallerová brings a mix of innocence and sensuality to the titular character that can be sometimes disturbing, and the director is ready to exploit the girl’s beauty and charme.
The soundtrack contributes to the general feeling of strangeness, and perfectly complements the almost “glamour” photography and the beautiful costumes and scenes.
Weird, surreal, strange and kinky, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an excellent reminder of what fantasy can do when we leave clichés behind, and it’s also a memento to the political and subversive power of the genre.
It’s well worth a look.