Aug 28, 2012

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Inspired by classic iconic fairy tales like Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood and based on the 1935 novel of the same name by avant-garde Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval, who was influenced by themes and settings explored in novels like M. G. Lewis' The Monk: A Romance (1796) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and F. W. Murnau's film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) aka Valerie a týden divů directed by Jaromil Jireš (The Cry, Incomplete Eclipse) – a phantasmagorical and psychosexual surrealist work that manages to seamlessly blur the line between fantasy and Gothic horror – is indubitably one of the most magnificent and mystifying works of celluloid thaumaturgy ever assembled. Not unlike American auteur Richard Blackburn’s devalued Lovecraftian vampire flick Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a striking and often sinister cinematic work that follows an innocent 13-year-old girl on the verge of sexual awakening as she is ambushed by a 7-day virtual carnival of unsavory humans, lighthearted lesbians, vicious vampires and ambiguous anthropomorphic creatures. Also, like Lemora (as well as many of the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a work where the virginal protagonist must come to terms with the yet uncovered reality of her dubious ancestry and seemingly odious forebears. Featuring perfectly contrasting sequences of angelic achromatic daylight scenes and chimerical twilight scenarios, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a fanciful filmic phantasy that provides even the most cynical and rationalistic of adults with a remainder of the marvel and enchantment of their less pessimistic childhood years. Of course, with its stirring scenes of frolicsome lesbian sexuality and magical menstruation, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is not the sort of film one should show to immature adolescents, even if many of these saturnine and sensual scenarios are portrayed in an ethereal and enigmatic fashion. In short, it is no exaggeration for me to say that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one of the most pulchritudinous and enrapturing films that I have ever seen, but I guess that it is no surprise when one considers that it was created in the same nation that produced such aesthetically-titillating cinematic masterpieces as Fruit of Paradise (1970) aka Ovoce stromů rajských jíme directed by Věra Chytilová and Jan Švankmajer’s direful yet dippy Slavicized adaptation of Goethe’s Faust (1994). 

 The first thing most viewers would probably notice upon watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is the youthful and undefiled beauty of Czech actress Jaroslava Schallerová who plays the title role of Valerie. Although Schallerová would later become a popular actress in Eastern Europe, later appearing in works including The Little Mermaid (1976) aka Malá mořská víla directed by Karel Kachyňa and Zaklęte rewiry (1975) directed by Janusz Majewski, it would be her debut performance at the ripe age of 13-years-old in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that would secure her lasting fame in the international film world. During the film, Valerie’s torment seems to begin when a drop of her blood falls from her body and lands on a lily white flower, thus despoiling the bud's color and symbolically signaling her new status into biological womanhood. During the beginning of the film, Valerie encounters a nerdy thief named Eagle (“Orlík” in Czech) who steals her sacred earrings, but subsequently returns them out of guilt. Despite his seemingly delinquent intentions early on in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Eagle ultimately becomes a passionate watchful protector of Valerie who warns her of a cadaver-like cloaked monster named “Weasel” who wears a grotesque weasel mask (to hide his even more malformed and sepulchral face) and acts in a weaselly by stalking and teasing the bewildered girl throughout the film. Valerie – whose parents were apparently honorable church leaders (a bishop and a nun) that are now long dead – soon discovers that her deathly pale but conspicuously beautiful blonde-haired and svelte grandmother is hiding pertinent information to her family’s seemingly shadowy history. Valerie’s grandmother – an intrinsically puritanical woman who religious fanaticism is obviously a translucent shield to cover her degenerate erotic past – has not gotten over her love for her ex-beau, a sadistic and hedonistic priest named Gracian. On her often macabre but equally majestic week of wonders, which includes rape via profane priest and being burned alive for an adoring peasant audience like a common witch, Valerie eventually discovers the root of her grandmother's perennial suffering (and her eventual treacherous betrayal), as well as the true and surprising identities of her family members. Naturally, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – being a surrealist postmodern fairy tale of sorts – unfolds in a phantasmal fashion equipped with a sort of delirious and daunting yet delightful dream-logic that defies any semblance of realism, but nonetheless making perfect sense on the metaphysical level because, unlike similarly ambitious avant-garde 'parables' (e.g. Henri Xhonneux's 1989 film Marquis), it is certainly not a film that will make you feel hopelessly restrained by an overwhelming aesthetic-onslaught and cheated out a full and engrossing story. 

 Undoubtedly, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one of the most elegant, culturally-refined, and spellbinding works of cinematic blasphemy ever assembled; where religious leaders are the most unholy of Satanic fiends and where nature in its most raw form is the height of sacrosanct. But then again, few, if any, things are more immaculate and mysterious to the eye of a child than nature at its most organic and unsullied; be it the decomposing corpse of a stillborn kitten or the unkempt hair contained within an adult's odorous ordure-stained underwear. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is such an extraordinary and transcendental cinematic work that even manages to make sibling incest and menstrual blood seem miraculous and downright divine, which is no small feat by director Jaromil Jireš; an adult auteur whose imagination is not by any means less developed than a prodigious (if peculiar and oversexed) child genius. Of course, seeing as it features the peeled tiny teats of 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová and the real-life death of a live animal, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a film that is sure to desensitize any child who has the premature honor of viewing it.  Although a fairy tale story about a feisty flower-child, I would not recommend Valerie and Her Week of Wonders to faeries; figurative or otherwise, as it is a work that is not hip to frivolous ideals of peace, passivity and empty epicureanism (even if the images might lead one to assume otherwise), but struggle and self-sanctification in an increasingly hostile world of persuading pleasures and retrogressing morality.  Needless to say, for fans of fateful fable films like Maurice Tourneur's Carnival of Sinners (1943), Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973), Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) Robert Sigl's Laurin (1989), and Michele Soavi's The Church (1989), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders makes for the most categorical celluloid allegory.

-Ty E

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