Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu)

Director Jaromil Jireš

Míru Square in Slavonice














VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (Valerie a týden divu)                   A-                    Czechoslovakia  (77 mi)  1970  d: Jaromil Jireš      

Was there something in the water in Eastern Europe in the late 60's?  A gorgeously stylized, color-saturated vampire flick that takes us into its own fantasy world, starring a 13-year old heroine (Jaroslava Schallerová) as she enters puberty.  Need one say more?  Czech New Wave director Jaromil Jireš raised eyebrows with his first film THE CRY (1964), a memory play using a series of fragmented flashbacks, combining fiction with documentary realism, becoming a subjective existential essay about the hopes and fears of living through a certain time, while his next film THE JOKE (1969) was a satiric indictment of the Communist Party, coming in the aftermath of Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion, and was an immediate hit until banned by the Party.  Still in the throes of a Soviet crackdown, this film somehow slipped through the censors artistically intact, released in 1970, using an occult Gothic aesthetic, becoming an allegorical fairy tale steeped in a sensual fantasyland of vampires, witchcraft, devils, charms, and a wily polecat that seems to be at the heart of the whole story.  With its ravishing visuals from cinematographer Jan Curík, shot in the Transylvanian-resembling townscape of Slavonice, with a magnificently preserved town square (Míru Square), using locals as the extras, the story takes secondary importance to the haunting quasi-medieval landscape, mixing horror, fairytale, and surrealism to depict the hypnotic, phantasmagorical world inhabited by a young girl on the threshold of adulthood, making astonishing use of color, featuring a remarkable, transcendent score by the great Luboš Fišer, Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders YouTube (5:47), reminiscent of Carl Orff’s children-inspired Musica Poetica, making frequent use of flute, chorus, and bells.  The original screenplay was written by Ester Krumbachová, who is also credited with production design, adapting a 1935 novel (which remained unpublished until 1945) by the Communist Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, an active member of the Devětsil avant garde in the 20’s while also a committed surrealist, co-founder of the Surrealist movement in Czechoslovakia, also friends with André Breton, written more like a Victorian fairy tale, becoming a spoof on the Gothic novel, adding a host of surrealist touches.  In many ways it resembles the softcore surrealist aesthetic of Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk, with eroticism lurking under every frame, though the movie seems more dreamlike than the novel, though it downplays the incestuous connotations and nudity that was explicitly present in the book, which remains obscure, lacking an English translation for years, and still evades a mainstream publisher.  The movie was supposed to be directed by Krumbachová’s husband Jan Němec, viewed as the enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave, but he was fired from the Barrandov Studios, eventually immigrating to the United States, so despite the fact his previous film was banned by authorities, Jireš was assigned to direct the film.  Not released in the USA until 1974, it faded into obscurity after that and remained relatively unseen in the West, where a decent print was unavailable for decades, finally enjoying a limited theatrical release in 2001 with newly restored 35mm prints, viewed with a kind of subversive, underground status, as the film is a Buñuelian skewering of organized religion, political authority, sexism, and exploitation of all forms, while overt acts of incest, rape, and pedophilia are shrouded in vampire lore.  Essentially a coming-of-age drama, Valerie’s innocence is met in equal measure by her inquisitive curiosity, where this down-the-rabbit-hole mosaic of a surreal fantasy world is an Alice in Wonderland adventure offering a unique portrait of the hidden secrets that seem to darkly inhabit her world, yet her saving grace comes in the form of magical earrings and a pearl that she swallows to eradicate herself from harm. 

Even after multiple viewings, the film can remain a bewildering spectacle, with so many odd plot twists and bizarre images, along with dreamlike themes of lost innocence and the betrayal of youth.  It’s important to understand what Czech life was like under the Soviet occupation, several years removed from the tanks arriving onto the streets of Prague in 1968, enforcing a political campaign of “forced normalcy,” where the State-sponsored message in newspapers, radio, and television was a nonstop propaganda campaign that expressed a fake façade of happiness and normalcy, all designed to cover up the darker inner-workings of a corrupt totalitarian system.  Jireš, who was born in Slovakia but largely worked in the Czech Republic, frames this film as a sexual awakening set against a backdrop of menacing pagan mysticism, where evil, demonic forces seem to surround Valerie at every turn, while the sinister presence in the ordinary lives of Czech citizens is the unwelcome presence of the Soviet occupation, whose malevolent authoritarian aims are designed to prohibit any thoughts of freedom or liberation.  Valerie, on the other hand, has other ideas, where there are fleeting moments of beauty and happiness, where she seems to be living in perfect harmony with the natural world around her, frequently seen with birds and flowers or eating fruit, with an angelic and beautifully melodic girl’s chorus in the background enveloping her bucolic world with a protective innocence Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders -- (Movie Clip) Opening ... YouTube (3:52).  The actress playing Valerie is perfectly in sync with her role, a young girl starting her journey into womanhood, with the film offering a series of challenging events, seemingly surrounded by evil from all sides, creating an unsettling dreamlike atmosphere, yet she is very adept at evading harm and wins out in the end with a kind of magical, fairy tale jubilation.  Living in the sterile confines of her grandmother’s house, it has a nearby courtyard and garden that resembles a Gothic castle, including a glass-covered greenhouse, with long corridors leading to a mysterious cellar filled with cobwebs and dust, but also coffins.  As she travels through the dark corridors of the house, she discovers the secrets to her past.  Valerie is brought up by her overly stern and dubiously religious grandmother (Helena Anýžová), whose pale face already resembles a vampire, reluctant or unwilling to tell her much about her missing parents, a bishop and a nun who are presumed dead, but may simply have been among the many who simply disappear from sight, a routine occurrence in authoritarian states.  A mysterious figure known as the Constable (Jiří Prýmek), a devil wearing a mask, who also looms as a ghoulish religious authority who terrorizes the town, takes a seemingly supernatural interest in Valerie, while the local Catholic priest, Gracián (Jan Klusák), immediately tries to rape her.  Her life is constantly interrupted by one of these three sinister creatures, while her only ally is Orlík (Petr Kopřiva), aka Eaglet, who also has romantic inclinations, and may be a friend taken by her beauty, but may also be her brother.  Nonetheless, he warns her of their corrupting intentions, offering the magical earrings and pearl as protection.  The Constable doubles as Tchor, a nightmarish vampire figure wreaking havoc on the local populace, much like a polecat feeding on a chicken coop, hoping to crush the ambitions of Valerie, a metaphor for the tyranny of the Soviet authority, crushing the spirits of the Czech citizens.  Valerie’s grandmother is also not what she seems, with vampires containing multiple and sometimes contradictory personalities, yet they personify the human capacity to commit evil actions, using supernatural manifestations and mysterious powers for incomprehensible betrayals, at times taking on the look of caring parents, demons able to shapeshift into likeable creatures, yet underneath the artificial façade lies a darker impulse primarily interested only in themselves, hypocritical and morally fraudulent, hiding behind a mask of piety, making Faustian bargains, willing to sell anyone out for selfish gain, only to betray Valerie at their first available opportunity.  In this manner, Valerie’s so-called parents are transformed back to vampires and exploiters, unreliable spirits, forcing Valerie to depend more and more on herself, as the supposed adult authority figures in her life tend to be dismissively harmful, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders YouTube (3:16).

The fact that the novel has such ambiguous intentions and defies categorization may have been one of the reasons why Jireš chose to make this movie, as the boldly radical stylization was also too indecipherable for Soviet censors, despite the fact surrealism had been reviled and suppressed by the Stalinist Soviet regime for decades, even executing some believers as anti-Soviet traitors, yet the Czech New Wave was among the most intensely experimental of film movements, including the avant garde works of Věra Chytilová, Jan Švankmajer, Jan Němec, and Toyen, with surrealists tending to view existing reality as inherently absurd.  The Soviet state denounced art that was viewed as incomprehensible, as this conflicts with the Socialist Realism aesthetic meant to emancipate the masses, so during the Soviet occupation, Czech artists like Jireš used an avant garde aesthetic to hide the subversive content of the film, even going so far as to utilize Freudian symbolism, with the Oedipal complex figuring prominently into Valerie’s family tree.  But all symbolism aside, Valerie is the story of a girl on the threshold of becoming a woman while accentuating the ways society preys upon her and seeks to dismiss her as a girl while coveting her sexually as a woman.  All three authority figures for Valerie are disguised as benevolent characters, yet are inherently predatory in their view of her, with Tchor wanting to manipulate and control her, while the priest Gracián actually blames her for his own rape impulses, as if it’s her fault for being young and pretty, and a girl.  Women are inevitably blamed for the weaknesses of men, for the shortcomings of institutions, so when we do not understand them, we condemn them, burn them as witches (as the priest does here), while demanding women be both sexual and chaste.  It’s a walking contradiction of twisted logic, yet underneath it all are men harboring sleazy intentions.  The grandmother is equally to blame, as she is an aging, once-beautiful woman, willing to openly betray Valerie if she can recapture her youth, even if it means becoming a vampire.  More than once she offers Valerie as bait to these repugnant men, hoping to get something out of it in return, like eternal beauty and youth, yet what is blatantly emphasized is the debasement of her actions, while Valerie is unwilling to let lecherous men drain her of her sense of wonder, and that remains the essential beauty of the film, as the world is seen through her eyes, filled with the warmth and imagination of a child, creating a world literally drenched in sunlight, not giving in to the dark decrepit creatures that take a selfish interest in possessing her, that have no soul, and we are the better for it.  Valerie even experiments with a same-sex friendship that is another part of her sexual awakening, offering her body as a cure for a vampire bite, yet what’s fascinating is that it remains innocent and free from guilt before the adult condemnation manipulates society into thinking it is somehow impure, unnatural, or unholy.  Orlík is a mercurial alter-ego figure, more asexual than anything, kind of a wandering free spirit who is continually punished by the Constable, suffering one indignity after another, at one moment brave, the next cowardly, yet he remains Valerie’s most dependable ally, always helping her out of dire circumstances, even desiring her while most of all valuing her friendship.  He is going through his own transformation from a boy to a man, and it is not without horrific encounters along the way.  So they are kindred spirits, liberated souls that refuse to be the subject of authoritative control, both striving to get out from under the weight of mistakes made by the previous generation.  In the end, Valerie not only perseveres, but triumphs, becoming a rite of spring celebration of life, exuding an indomitable spirit.     

Note                                                                                                                                                In 2007, The Valerie Project, a newly-formed ten-member Philadelphia band turned the film into a live event by screening it with a newly-composed psychedelic folk score.  The touring show became an attraction at many venues including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it was the musical accompaniment to a silent version of the film, with an album release tying in with the live engagements.