VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is perhaps the most enchantingly disturbing movie I have ever seen. It is certainly unlike anything I have ever seen and even now I am questioning the adjectives I have chosen to describe it. In the moments after viewing it I described it as disturbing because I felt used by a movie; now I chose disturbing because it is quite simply nothing else. The film disturbs the emotional state of the viewer and forces them to confront a new spectre of their emotional lexicon they previously didn’t know existed. I chose enchanting because no other film has made me quite so enamoured by my own mood being disrupted.
Anyone familiar with the movie will know there’s not much of a story to be spoken of. Adapted from the 1932 novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezva, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is a Czechoslovakian surrealistic masterpiece of fantasy and symbolism, one of the last Czechoslovakian new-wave films released during the era when narrative dissonance was still at its height. In the decade that followed, traditional narratives would return to the public spotlight, and eventually Czechoslovakia would dissolve. In its historical context, VALERIE may be seen as a time capsule of uncertainty and mystic rebellion as well as a coming-of-age metaphor, not just for the titular character herself, but for the soon to be born Czech Republic and Slovakia as well.
Contrary to its first impression, there is more than enough plot in this movie to sustain its short runtime, even if the film is more regarded for its imagery than its story. Unlike Shakespeare, for example, there is little else to be gained from a first time viewing than the striking visual landscape, but perhaps even exceeding the great bard is the depth the depth that reveals itself, layer by layer, upon deeper analysis and retrospection. VALERIE makes great use of metaphor, religious symbolism, erotica, culture, fantasy, horror, and impressionism to an extent that would undoubtably infuriate high school students just trying to stay awake during English classes even more than Hamlet does.
To recap the plot as it first appears: a strange man comes to down. Valerie learns that he is the lover of her grandmother who has come to reclaim the house she lives in. He is also a vampire and needs Valerie’s life-force to regain his vitality. Valerie has in her possession magical earrings that repel the advances of the evil forces that threaten her. She is also enamoured by a young man who she takes turns saving and being saved by when her world collapses in around her. Her grandmother dies. She saves her grandmother. A young woman is married to a vampire and bit. She saves the young woman. Her mother at last returns and introduces Valerie to her father, who is also her grandfather, who is also a vampire. Also it’s all a dream. Within a dream.
Or something like that. Christopher Nolan’s head would spin if he saw this movie.
The plot isn’t really the point, the imagery is, but the imagery informs the plot. Consider the following: the movie begins with the onset of Valerie’s menstruation, her introduction to womanhood. Her story then, takes place in a world where she is old enough to be sexualized but young enough to escape into childhood fantasy. Indeed a recurring scene sees Valerie spying on young women bathing in a stream, nymph characters engaged in innocent sexuality — a striking contradiction if ever there was one, but one more reflective of teenage reality than any of the Hollywood coming-of-age movies ever released, particularly from the female perspective — to which Valerie covers her young breasts and looks away ashamed, yet intrigued. Consider also the sexual predator nature of the original vampire mythology. Here, bites are turned to kisses, in greeting, in comfort, and in consumption. Priests are predators, grandmothers are mothers, grandfathers are vampires, and a boyfriend is also a brother. Ambiguity plays a large role as Valerie navigates her dual nature: she is a child and a woman; her world is real and fantastic; her life is both magical and horrific.
All these metaphors play a key in interpreting the narrative. Valerie is thrust into a world where she doesn’t know the identity of anyone else, who may or may not be a vampire, may or may not be a victim, may or may not be a family member. Sexuality blossoms in a confusing way, consider Freud’s theory of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of family members affecting the sexual lives of adults. From this lens, the plot follows a young woman trying to navigate her newfound world and understand her conflicting feelings about those she loves. As far as traditional stories go, very little more explanation is needed. There have been movies made with less plot than this that are still considered complex.
Important too to understanding the story is the striking imagery: water flowing reminiscent of Tarkovsky, blood droplets on flowers paralleling the fruit Valerie eats, paralleling the bloodlust of the vampires, paralleling menses. Religious iconography contrasts with death, also a new introduction to Valerie. A priest hangs himself from a window in crucifix pose. Men flagellate themselves, women tear their clothes in torment, exposing their breasts while men look on as they cover the eyes of their children. Nuns bless themselves and pray while a prophet curses Valerie and threatens to burn her at the stake unless she confesses she is a witch. Of course a young women possessing the power to defeat evil (sexual dominance) is accused of being a witch. How is she supposed to answer this? If she confesses the will burn her for being a witch, if she does not, they will burn her for denying the “truth” anyway.
For her youth, Valerie is not innocent. A not-so-veiled lesbian tryst results in the salvation of a character whose life is compromised by her vampire husband. Valerie’s own nakedness is never seen as sexualized to the viewer, but is seen so to her patriarchal figures, but it is her own deliberate innocence — not the innocence thrust upon her by the pedophiliac nature of society around her, but that which she chooses to maintain as a weapon against evil — that is her secret power. A gift is given to her by her lover that repels a predator and then stolen by that same lover, a metaphor for virginity that turns on itself as Valerie learns she is in command of her powers herself.
It is virtually impossible to end up spoiling this movie by giving anything away. The narrative is fractured and repeats itself, folding in on dreams within dreams while leaping from scenario to scenario without any need to maintain an internal consistency, and that is the point. There is no need to make sense of what we are seeing, only to fall into it. The music is hallucinatory and spiritual, like a childhood nursery rhyme sung in a church choir. The images are frightening and fascinating, the world in which the story takes place strikingly simplistic and hellish at the same time. Comforting, yet disturbing. A contradiction of itself.
To return to my opening statement, this is indeed one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, yet now upon reflection I find myself wondering if I mean that in a negative way. Perhaps some movies ought to disturb us, some stories ought to make us question ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. I have to wonder what my impression of VALERIE might be if I were a woman as even from a male’s perspective I find myself identifying more with femininity through this film than I ever have watching a movie directed by a woman. Perhaps that is a strange detail to take note of but it is one I am painfully aware of nonetheless. There is a sense of longing conveyed in Jaromil Jireš’ erotic fantasy that eschews the patriarchal gaze and replaces it with the mystery of adolescence and womanhood. Or perhaps I’ve finally gone too far in trying to interpret a movie that evades analysis at every turn, kind of like the cusp of adolescence itself does.
VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is available on Criterion blu-ray