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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, those first stirrings as your body changes will surprise you and everyone else who watches it as it happens…

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Distributed by: Janus Films (US)
Directed by: Jaromi Jires

There are some phenomena that seem to generate their own sub-sub genres of fantastic films.

Like menarche.

Remarkably, this is fertile ground for some memorable films that use it in their stories. Turning Red, Ginger Snaps, Persepolis, and Carrie, all of these had their own take on this, each having to be mindful of their producers and audience’s sensibilities (real and imagined) on how to approach the topic in their work.

One memorable film in this sub-sub genre came from a director of the Czech New Wave who definitely had one of the more interesting approaches:

In between the opening credits being displayed on screen cards, we get introduced to Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová in her screen debut) through shots of her at rest, drinking from a fountain, praying, and admiring her earrings. She highly values these earrings, which we discover once the credits end when she gets upset after Orlik, aka “Eaglet” (Petr Kopřiva) steals them from her while she’s asleep. She runs looking for the thief, but comes across the horrific visage of the Constable (Jirí Prýmek in his debut) who scares her away.

The next day, Valerie gets her earrings back when Orlik returns them, which angers the Constable, who is Orlik’s uncle. She’s fairly relieved at this, to the point where she is so relaxed that she doesn’t fret when her blood spots the daisies as she walks over them. This comes up in conversation with her grandmother (Helena Anýzová) when Valerie protests that she’s no longer a little girl.

During the same conversation, Grandmother lets Valerie know that her mother was the same age she was now when her body also changed. She also notes that Valerie’s earrings originally belonged to her mother, before mom got sent off to a convent. We also hear that both a troupe of actors and a group of pilgrims are coming to town at about the same time, just as the town celebrates the wedding of a rich landowner to a much younger bride, Hedvika (Alena Stojáková in her only role).

As the wedding attendees stroll past Valerie’s house, both she and her grandmother see the Constable, who both women recognize with alarm, but for different reasons. Valerie must also be wary of the priest leading the pilgrims, Gracián (Jan Klusák, his last acting role as a diversion before concentrating on his main work as a composer), who was Grandma’s former lover. Valerie watches in secret as Grandma flagellates herself to make him take her back, then as she meets the Constable, whom she calls “Richard,” and asks him what she has to do to reclaim her youth.

Things get uglier from there. Valerie has to fight off Gracián when he tries to rape her, and Grandma and the Constable Richard sneak up on Hedvika during her wedding night, where Grandma bites the bride on her back.

Valerie hides with Orlik from Gracián overnight, and returns home to find the sinful cleric has hung himself. She also finds a visitor to her house, who introduces herself as Elsa, a distant cousin. Elsa is in fact grandma, also played by Anýzová, who has regained her youth, thanks to some changes in her life (?) style…

It’s here where the film goes in an unexpected direction compared to other movies about this topic: It gives us a story about a girl’s journey to womanhood with vampires as the subtext.

And speaking of subtext, the rundown given above is a barebones summation, in that Jires fills every shot with cuts to other scenery and characters at the periphery of the scene. With these shots, Valerie’s awareness of what is going on around her and how that fills her thoughts is continually presented. Add to that the constant moving from high angle shots to close-ups as we go back and forth between Schallerová, who Jires is smitten by in the way he frames her, and her environment, and we end up with a story that unfolds like a very heavy dream.

First edition of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, published 1945

Which is likely intentional. Based on the book of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, the co-founder of the Czech Surrealist movement, the film puts us in a place where impressions we’re not used to are intruding on us. Much like menarche itself, it’s a confusing place to be, where we don’t quite understand what we’re seeing with our eyes, but we do get a deeper sense, a feel, for what we’re looking at, and are given the room to decide whether or not this is arousing.

Being detached from the real world was likely a state Jires wanted to be in. The film he made before this, The Joke, was recognized as a damning look at Communist control, and would be hailed in later years as one of the most insightful critiques of the system. He had the bad luck, however, of releasing this film only a few months after Brezhnev ended the Prague Spring, which nearly ended his career. Trying to stay in the good graces of the new regime (who would ban The Joke in the country until the Velvet Revolution took hold), his adaptation of Nezval’s classic was likely his way of getting back in the authorities’ good graces.

Original Czech theatrical poster

While Jires would go on to a continued though pedestrian career making films in his home country, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders usually ends up listed as the last film of the Czech New Wave in articles about the movement. It’s still a testimony of its director’s ambition and skill, and proved to be a popular export when the film found its way to the West.

Among those who were fans of the film was the English novelist Angela Carter, who would discuss how moved she was by the film. So moved, in fact, that she’d cite this as the inspiration for The Company of Wolves, her novel that she’d adapt with Neil Jordan into a movie.

Yes, yet another entry in that sub-sub genre…

 

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