Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Review first published by Film4

Synopsis: With Czechoslovakia under Soviet Occupation, director Jaromil Jires retreats into this oneiric fantasy of a young girl’s journey into adulthood.

Review: When Jaromil Jires’ Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders enjoyed its UK premiere at the National Film Theatre, one of the more appreciative members of the audience was Angela Carter – the same Angela Carter who, years later, would pen the story for Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves (1984).

The films have much in common, both using the trappings of folkloric horror to allegorise the sexual awakening of a young woman, but where Carter focused on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and the werewolf myth, in Jires’ film it is vampires, the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve, and the demonic contracts of Faustus, all framed as a surreal trip through a girl’s subconscious.

Developments here are measured as much in the budding body of Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) as in the movements of the plot – the latter proving no less unstable than the series of dreams that constitute them. At the film’s beginning, the sleeping 13-year-old Valerie has her clitoris-shaped earrings temporarily stolen by young Orlík (Petr Kopriva), encounters his vampiric master Tchor (Jirí Prýmek), experiences her first period and struggles to reconcile her emerging sexual awareness with her austere upbringing at the hands of a severe Grandmother (Helen Anyzová).

If FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) has influenced Tchor’s rodent-like, pointy-eared appearance, Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is far closer to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) in its use of dream logic and of a protagonist who is often (perhaps always) slumbering.

Whether the wonders that Valerie witnesses truly last a week, or just a single disturbed night, is open to question, but in Jires’ fantasy-world characters wear masks, shift identity and alter their interrelationships like the actors in the troupe that’s visiting Valerie’s town to perform ‘Doktor Faustus’.

In one of several anti-clerical strategies adopted by the film, the devout priest Gracián (Jan Klusák) is exposed as a lecherous hypocrite. When he is not taking the form of a predatory weasel, Tchor adopts the form of a constable, a visiting missionary, Ortík’s uncle, Ortík’s father and even Valerie’s father – while the prim Grandmother is revealed to have had an active sexual past with both Tchor (under the name Richard) and Gracián, and is transformed by a Faustian pact with Tchor into a younger succubus named Elsa, and ultimately into Valerie’s long lost mother.

“Don’t you recognise me?” is a recurrent line here, and all this fluidity of person reflects Valerie’s broader confusion about her own metamorphosis into womanhood, as she finds herself having to renegotiate her relationship with the world around her, all at once becoming object, instigator, victim and enchantress of (chiefly, if not exclusively, male) desire. Staging her hopes and anxieties in a theatre of the mind, Valerie discovers that innocence and eros make strange, and strangely compatible, bedfellows.

Made long after the Prague Spring of 1968, Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is one of the last films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and was apparently green-lit by the Soviet authorities solely because of its source – a novel of the same name written in 1935 and published in 1945 by the poet Vítezslav Nezval, who was a committed communist until his death in 1958.

Not that the film, for all its timeless fantasy, lacks for political content – for what could be more subversive than the destabilising power of the irrational? Indeed, it is not difficult to perceive in Jires’ assaults on a paternalistic, hypocritical clergy a more general challenge to repressive authorities and the social order that they impose. Jires’ weapon, like Valerie’s, is the force of his imagination, unable to be confined, drained of its life-force, or burnt at the stake.

Reminiscent of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004) in its hauntingly hermetic approach to female adolescence, Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is a kaleidoscope of odd imagery and beautiful colours, while Lubos Fiser’s score offers a beguiling blend of folk, choir and music box raspings. It is the perfect soundtrack to a rural reverie.

In A Nutshell: This confounding, carnivalesque coming-of-age fantasy is as beguiling as it is beautiful, as subversive as it is strange.

Anton Bitel