Friday, 30 June 2017

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Adapted from the novel by poet Vítězslav Nezval, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders bears all the hallmarks of the liberated Czech New Wave, even though the irony is that, by the time it went into production, the nation had been subjected to a Soviet invasion that ruthlessly and violently brought it back into line with the Mother Russia. The film, like the novel before it, is a fantasy inspired by the Gothic movement and the dark, traditional fairytales that have so enchanted generations of Europeans throughout the centuries. But it also incorporated other influences, such as Lewis Carrol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and FW Murnau's Nosferatu, all of which the film's director, Jaromil Jireš, faithfully adds to the pot.

The structure of the film is essentially an episodic string of surrealist dreams from the highly active, subconscious mind of our young heroine, the eponymous Valerie, played by Jaroslava Schallerová (and looking at times not unlike the teenage Kate Bush in the Carrol-esque photos taken by her brother John Carder Bush). That these dreams take on an increasing sexual nature are indicative of the great change presenting itself in reality to Valerie, as it is the week she has begun menstruating and therefore is becoming a woman. 

In the main, Valerie operates as a bystander to the weird and dark tableaus she finds herself, and these present the growing realisation she has of her relations and friends as sexual beings, complete with phallic and erotic imagery. In each scenario Valerie is never far from three consistent figures; her religious, repressive grandmother, a poetic, Puckish young man known as Eagle, and the vampiric Weasel, and what it is each represents to Valerie is often interchangeable. For example, Weasel can be the Nosferatu-like vampire who feasts on the blood of chickens, a corrupt and lustful bishop, or a handsome red headed man who is identified as Valerie's father. He seems to be a metaphor for male authority in Valerie's life; be it the bogeyman of fantasy or a very real sexual threat, or simply a paternal figure. He could even serve as a representation of Russia; old, authoritative and unforgiving in the nature of youth. Likewise, Eagle is identified both as a potential suitor Valerie falls for and also her estranged brother, and incest is clearly not a concern for either of them. It's no coincidence either that his youthful spirit allies itself to Valerie in this strange world. Lastly her grandmother is also endlessly shifting, moving through the familial roles, from grandmother to her mother and even appearing as a glamourous provocative cousin (and accomplice to Weasel's vampire) to awaken Valerie's lesbian side. 

Whatever Valerie faces, she moves from each scenario seemingly unscathed and unaffected, often thanks to her earrings which are decreed in this fantasy as having special powers that keep her safe. Valerie remains pure, but the sexual nature of others seems to come alive at night, when the restrictive cloak of respectability religion and authority falls away.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders offers so much to consider that it is actually quite hard for me right now to pin down what it is I actually think of it. I'm not altogether sure it's a success for me, and the fact that this is arguably the first Czech New Wave film to disappoint me (however slightly) pains me, but it has left me with much to consider and, should I return to it, I think I'll have a more definite answer one way or another. Maybe, like Valerie herself, I will have to sleep on it. Though it's a shame to think that the morning Valerie woke up to was the dawning of the age of immobility in the kingdom of forgetting.

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