Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
English Title: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Original Title: Valerie a Týden Divů
Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia
Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov
Director: Jaromil Jireš
Producer(s): Jiří Bečka
Cinematographer: Jan Čuřík
Art Director: Jan Oliva
Editor: Josef Valusiak
Runtime: 77 minutes
Volume: East European
Valerie is a young virgin girl on the cusp of puberty. Her first menstruation heralds a tentative entry into womanhood, and with that the doors of perception are opened to a week of strange events that are at times bizarre and frightening, but always filled with wonderment. After receiving a special pair of pearl earrings, young Valerie is transported into a strange world of nightmares and dreams wherein she roams surrounded by a depraved bishop, a vampiric grandmother, inquisitional missionaries and a semi-incestuous brother. But in the course of her adventures she learns the truth about her mother and father as she undergoes her initiation from pubescence into womanhood and sexual awakening.
Valerie a Týden Divů/Valerie and her Week of Wonders is based on the novel by Czech surrealist Vítězslav Nezval, a founding member of the Prague based avant-garde group, Devětsil. The novel was written in the 1930s while Nezval was in close contact with his friends and French Surrealists André Breton and Paul Éluard, and is an explicitly surreal and overtly erotic treatment of all the major themes in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Written by Ester Krumbachová, who also wrote O slavnosti a hostech/The Party and the Guests (1966) and Věra Chytilová’s comparable Sedmikrásky/Daisies (1966), and directed by Czech New Wave luminary Jaromil Jireš, Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a tale of initiation, of every young girl’s rite of passage that is menstruation. The titular protagonist, played subtly but forcefully by Jaroslava Schallerová, experiences menarche and thus begins her development and growth (her initiation) into womanhood. It is as if the veil of Maya is lifted, and for the first time the virginal Valerie is now able to see beyond surface and artifice of the world to the greed, corruption, lust and deviancy that is inherent in adulthood.
Valerie herself, however, remains incorruptible, and her innocence is frequently symbolized on-screen by white doves and daisies. For instance, when the lecherous friar (whose sexual advances to Valerie had earlier been rebuffed) accuses her of being a witch and has her burned at the stake, Valerie simply pops a pearl into her mouth and disappears, leaving in her place a solitary dove whose pure white colour stands in marked contrast to the blackened and charred stake. Moreover, the daisy is apparent in numerous scenes in the film, especially at the beginning where we see the first spots of Valerie’s menstrual blood drip upon this particular flower, which Valerie then picks up and enters into a dazzlingly bright white room that may be an overt manifestation of innocence or of entry through the door of womanhood.
The main narrative of the film sees Valerie plagued by Weasel, a depraved and vampiric village constable who might at one time have been a bishop, and who may or may not be Valerie’s father. This character, who bears a striking resemblance to Count Orlok from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), enlists the help of Valerie’s grandmother Babicka (who herself is a vampire) in order to seduce Valerie. The grandmother agrees to sacrifice Valerie in order to attain eternal youth and returns as the young and beautiful Elsa, a Bathoryesque seductress. There is also Eagle, Valerie’s brother, who has the dual role of both protector and incestuous suitor, and who both steals and returns Valerie’s precious pearl earrings. There is not a single member of her family that does not pose some form of sexual threat to the young girl, who, despite being surrounded by vice, maintains her purity and innocence to the extent that, like Christ before her, it begins to possess a redemptive value. For example, a young bride who has fallen under the (sexual) spell of a vampire is saved by the kisses of Valerie, freed from her bondage just as youth is restored to the dying Weasel by the same means.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a cinematic dream of a film, an oneiric poem that from the first frame acts as a collage of symbols, themes, and motifs drawn from the deepest recesses of the unconscious; where, as in a fairy tale, childhood innocence comes face to face with the corruption of maturity. It is a narrative where sexuality is perilously awakened and, as in the best allegorical films by Buñuel and Jodorowsky, is challenged and given its own vivifying physicality and force. Jireš’ film (by far his best and most famous) is as exhilarating as it is intoxicating, a bizarre nightmare and an unforgettable dream of many wonders.
Author of this review: Zachariah Rush