Director/Screenwriter: Jaromil Jirês
By Roderick Heath
Czech director Jaromil Jirês’ intoxicating 1970 masterpiece Valerie and Her Week of Wonders manages to be many almost-contradictory things at once: highly surreal and yet oddly logical, wistfully brooding and yet often pungently humorous, unsettling and yet deeply gentle, intricately perverse and beatifically innocent, richly sentimental and darkly knowing. Indeed, a major undercurrent of the film is an exploration of the unity of opposites: Valerie herself (Jaroslava Schallerová) is catalyst, as object of desire, babe in the woods, dreamer, suppliant, anarchist, victim, conqueror, and saviour. Her odyssey slips the boundaries of the rational world and melts all given codes and figures into a mysterious confection. There’s a variety of coherent narrative here, but one that follows the associative twists of a dream state, and Jirês purposefully harks back to the great folk-myth tradition from which the fairy story and horror tale both sprang and parted company when broken up into modern genres.
Jirês’ film, based on Vítezslav Nezval’s novel, fuses ecstatic fantasia and gothic fugue into a singular vision that interrogates the symbolic underpinnings of so much imagery common to folk-myth. It’s also a lethally funny satire, on repression, anxiety, family roles, and sexual awakening, as well as a celebration of the fecundity of humanity—especially its feminine variety—and the imagination for moulding the world. The initially bewildering run of visions that sets Valerie in motion reveals the heroine at the cusp of womanhood, in images of sentimentalised ripeness similar in effect and intent to Picnic at Hanging Rock’s reclining, meditating maidens. For example, Valerie delighting in a pair of earrings that she cups with delight (at one point she holds them to her chest, and they do seem to symbolise her filling adolescent breasts), and the recurring image of the girl swimming in the lily-clogged water of the fountain at the centre of the main square of her town. That fountain is the very heart of the film’s geography and of the action, and Valerie’s swim evokes the purest image of a water-nymph ready to snatch herself another Hylas.
And yet Valerie is already in danger when she becomes the prize at stake for a mysterious vampiric monster (Jirí Prýmek) who employs his handsome young thrall Orlík (Petr Kopriva) to steal her earrings while she sleeps in a greenhouse. But Orlík gives them back to her, defying his mysterious master by being entranced by Valerie himself.
Valerie lives in a staid, sizable bourgeois house with her stern, frigid-looking grandmother Elsa (Helena Anýzová), who tells her to put aside the earrings, which belonged to her disgraced, exiled mother. Elsa instead recommends she attend the service being given by a troupe of missionaries, priests, and nuns who are filing into town at the same time Valerie’s slightly older friend Hedvika (Alena Stojáková) is being wedded to a “stingy farmer,” an event that also draws actors and circus folk. Valerie, however, is intrigued by the naturally overflowing sexuality expressed by the young peasant women of the town who kiss each other and flirt with the strong young men who hang about them, waiting to copulate with glee in the woods at the edge of town. Grandmother herself has a few dark secrets tucked away, and when Valerie, watching the crowd in the square, spies the grotesque vampire himself, Elsa seems to recognise him as someone troublingly familiar.
The vampire’s insidious infestation of Valerie’s life begins to manifest as he fills every patriarchal position in the narrative. He’s the elder priest who gives the congregated village females a blessing. He’s the also the local constable by whom Orlík is ensnared. He’s the long-ago lover of Elsa, and claims also to be father to both Valerie and Orlík. “I have never loved another man since you seduced and abandoned me,” Elsa moans to the vampire. “Sorry about that,” he replies. The vampire announces his new reign by setting fire to the waters of the fountain: he is the yin to Valerie’s yang and the kindler of black passions. Elsa is smitten with one of the missionaries, Gracian (Jan Klusák), who’s just returned from Africa; the vampire leads Valerie into a hidden chamber and forces her to watch through a peephole as Elsa flagellates herself before Gracian. In order to regain her youth and beauty, Elsa is willing to sign over her house to the vampire, whom she calls Richard. He infects her, and after being restored to rapacious youth and imprisoning Valerie, she poses as Valerie’s cousin and seduces and drinks the blood of anyone she can. Orlík keeps rescuing Valerie from her predicaments and vice versa; even if they are brother and sister, they seem fated to be together.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders could be the most delicate and evocative work of the ‘60s and ‘70s renaissance of fantastic cinema in Europe, working with material certainly familiar to some more definable generic directors I’ve celebrated lately—Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco, Dario Argento, Terence Fisher—and yet freed from the cruder necessities of the commercial cinema they served. The cinema to which Valerie belongs is imbued instead with a folk-myth atmosphere essayed in terms more closely related to Sergei Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova. Indeed, some tableaux vivant shots, like the vampire standing upon a ledge against a church wall with arms spread or Hedvika arrayed in her bridal gown, or visual conjuring like the vampire hailing the birds escaping their coops in the dusklight, echo Paradjanov’s style keenly. It is, when you think about it, a rare event for a filmmaker to truly utilise the capacity of cinema to work magic, especially these days, when magic is usually the product of remarkably nonmagical CGI.
Judging by the style of clothes and settings, the film takes place in the late 19th century, but it is replete with hazy elements that suggest both a far more distant past of premodern spirituality and folk-culture, and more contemporaneous touches. Jires contrasts Elsa’s Victorian hairdo with the younger girls’ pure ’60s cuts, reflecting the generation-gap alarm at its heart, as well in the conflict of the ripe rustic images and the grinding wheels of nascent industry.
The structure is studded with paranoid surrogate figures and the intricate interplay of social and familial roles, with every characterisation threatening to blend into another, suggesting layers to identity. The merely relative nature of identity, when it comes to enacting such roles, is constantly restated: only Valerie remains firmly integral at the core, and here the anxiety is about which character seems to represent her future and desires. A constant motif of Valerie’s odyssey involves acts of spying: the vampire’s first direct act is to show her the hidden rooms, clogged with spider’s webs and dust-crusted books, and then force her to watch Elsa groveling and beating herself before Gracian’s amused gaze. Later, in another deserted part of the house, mysterious machinery cranks and whirs as Valerie spies on Elsa ensnaring a young man, and then trying to also seduce Orlík.
Such moments are perfect metaphors are Valerie’s forceful introduction to the hidden intricacies of the adult world lurking behind the settled forms and genteel pretences of Elsa’s upbringing. Incestuous lust is a constant motif, as it was in so much classical European mythology—seen in Valerie and Orlík’s sibling attraction, in the vampirised Elsa reborn as the imperiously sexy faux-cousin trying to drink Valerie’s blood, and finally in a striking consummation between Valerie and her vampire father. To save him from starvation, Valerie smears chicken’s blood upon her mouth in a telling approximation of lipstick and kisses him to reawaken his thirst, briefly restoring him to the young, beautiful hunter he once was before he reverts to the ravenous monster. When Valerie’s mother (Anýzová again) turns up, daughter, mother, and grandmother all kiss each other with strangely knowing intimacy. Valerie’s sexual innocence is constantly placed at stake, with the constant threat that she will be involved in something transgressive either according to her own drives or by violation according to someone else’s.
These perverse elements, however, finally feel less literal than acknowledgement again of the interchangeable, successive nature of adult roles—from daughter to mother, from lover to parent—and the finite way sexuality defines all such roles. But the whole landscape is rife with sensual possibility, signaled by the peasant lasses who greet all physical contact with unsullied enthusiasm. Hedvika, in marrying her aging, portly farmer, is anxious about her commitment, and yet she pledges to “grow older” for him, for he’s as nervous as she is; when they unite, Elsa takes the chance to bite Hedvika, presenting the delirious, crucial image of sexual health being sucked out of the girl from both sides in a mad ménage à trois. Later, Valerie, fount of all health, restores Hedvika by sleeping with her in moment of desexualised lesbian love redolent of natural fulsomeness and healing potential.
It’s hard to describe Valerie’s deeper, darker levels without stinting on its effervescent humour and sprightly vitality, much of which stems from a constant Buñuel-esque anti-clerical satire. For the film constantly resorts to images of the ancient wooden shrines around the village, describing such motifs as Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary, with whom Valerie is associated, which are the home to hives of bees, ripest symbol of natural bounty, and thus uniting natural and spiritual fulsomeness. But Gracian, as representative of the church, is a hypocrite who hustles his train of nuns hurriedly past a peasant couple gleefully rutting in the woods, but lets Elsa debase herself before him with an indulgent smile and tries to seduce Valerie in her bedroom, where, in the film’s most cripplingly hilarious moment, he opens his cassock to reveal an African tooth-bedecked necklace with the pride of a swinger’s gold peace-symbol chain, whilst leering like a randy bear. The totemistic power of her earrings and a pearl Orlík gives her deflects him with an astounded, and troubled exclamation of “What have you done?” Later, he accuses her of being a witch, and has her burnt at the stake, to which Valerie’s fearless reaction is to poke her tongue out at him before using her totems to vanish from within the flames.
The theme of Death and the Maiden, with roots in the Germanic folkloric scheme, is of course a vital one in the European artistic tradition, with its dialogue of effusive youth and beauty set against entropy and inevitability, translated into an innately sexual metaphor of femininity and masculinity, locked in a process of conquest and surrender. Valerie’s travails with the monster/father/lover figure certainly employs this motif, but Jirês invests it here with that specifically playful, pastoral quality that is familiarly Czech and distinct from more lugubrious German cinematic takes on the idea which Jirês references, like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), whose Max Schreck style of vampire Richard resembles. The vampire and Elsa each enact a twisted fantasy of retaining youth by becoming monsters, but also embody Valerie’s anxieties as the blooming of her womanhood also means getting older, and facing the inevitable withering of that bloom. She constantly crosses paths with a small girl who gives away flowers around the village, bestowing her gifts on everyone, the arch-innocent whom Valerie is ceasing to be.
Valerie’s fleeing Gracian’s repressed, hypocrisy-dominated overworld sees her venture instead into a labyrinthine under the town now dominated by the vampire and Elsa, with the peasant men and women in their thrall, as if suggesting the way expressions of natural sexuality was forced underground by pharisaic religion and subjected then to perverted transformations. Ironically here, when the vampire drinks a potion into which Valerie throws her pearl, he himself is toppled and reduced to a slinking ferret—Orlík has constantly called him a polecat—and scuttles away as the thralls try to stamp on him. Later, Orlík shoots the polecat and displays his fur.
Thanks to Valerie’s prayers, the week of wonder seems to come to end, or more accurately, reboots, with the household’s rhythms restored to the same normalcy as at the beginning, and Elsa returned to her grandmotherly age, to expire in shame as she explains an omen to Valerie that entails the return of her mother. Her mother, when she comes, is in the company of Valerie’s father, who is the young hunter the vampire had appeared to be. Elsa, resurrected, comes out to meet her daughter and husband, and the suddenly reunited family proceeds into the woods, where, rather than finding a newly clarified form, everyone encounters their many alter egos. All the characters frolic in a riverside glade where the peasant girls infest the branches of a tree as if in a pagan rite and eagerly embrace the vampire on a boat, whilst Gracian is confined to a birdcage. The nuns and maidens lounge in ease together, and the whole cast gather around the bed where Valerie lies down to sleep, or, more likely, awaken at last. At the cusp of the waking world, all opposites and figurations join, and the flower girl refuses to give a bloom to Valerie here—she has ceased to be a child.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is composed with such ripe artistic and technical skill it’s hard to believe it didn’t simply spring out of someone’s head, and yet, of course, it’s the result of hard work. Special kudos are owed to cinematographer Jan Curík, with his sharp, yet muted colours, and Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák for their inventive, atmospheric score. The cast, who were almost all post-dubbed by other actors, are nonetheless splendidly suited, especially the weirdly wonderful Anýzová (usually a costume designer for movies), called upon to play the many notes of the adult female, swinging from glowering, pale-haired domestic despotism to saucy, fishnet-stockinged femme fatale, giddily lapping the blood off a man’s neck or locked in a woozy waltz with her undead lover.