Such an odd, strange, lovely movie. This feature by Jaromil Jireš was the last gasp of the Czech New Wave, an absurdist movement which also gave us animator Jan Švankmajer and Miloš Forman. I say “last gasp” because the Soviet government put the kibosh on arty-time films around the time of its release.
Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is a 13 year-old girl living with her grandmother (Helena Anýzová). Their village is, that week, playing host to both a company of actors and a group of missionaries, one of whom is Grandmother’s old flame, a predatory priest. That set-up is only the background for a hallucinatory, episodic fairy tale with vampires, were-weasels, witch hunts, and magical earrings.
Valerie has just experienced menarche (an initial image of red currant juice dripping on a snow white daisy is typical of the lush metaphors that run rampant), and much of what she encounters in the trim 77 minutes can be interpreted as a child’s view of adult desire – mysterious, bizarre, and not a little frightening. The arrival of Grandmother’s old boyfriend – the priest who attempts to molest Valerie – causes her to turn to yet another old boyfriend, the Polecat, who turns her into a youthful red-haired vampire. The priest will also try to silence Valerie on the matter of his attempted molestation by denouncing her as a witch and burning her at the stake, something our plucky heroine survives with aplomb and nose-thumbing.
Any attempt to take this literally is going to make your eyes cross and frustrate you. Just rest secure in the knowledge that as the threads of the fairy tale begin to come together at the end, the images that were so threatening and ominous before become more welcoming and even attractive as Valerie becomes more comfortable and understanding of her incipient womanhood. It is an unusual movie; the Soviet countries produced quite a few wonderful and gorgeous fairy tale movies in the 60s and 70s, simply because glorifying local folklore was seen as beneficial to nationalism, and such movies were less likely to encounter much in the way of censorship. Valerie, however, is trying to do something more than recount old stories.
The Criterion blu-ray has an alternate soundtrack, a “folk psych” score by a gathering of musicians calling themselves “The Valerie Project”. It’s score only, no dialogue – but I was reading subtitles anyway, and I thought “Sure, why not.” It’s an interesting addendum, but the most surprising thing is it allowed me to make an unusual connection: while I was watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders with this newer music, I kept flashing back to the short films of Maya Deren I had encountered early on, back in high school, especially Meshes of the Afternoon. I still have my laserdisc of her shorts. The amazing, layered imagery, the dreamy, rather creepy, but undeniably lovely ambiance – that’s all here in Valerie. It made me feel that if she had made a feature in color, it might have looked and felt like this.
And if you know what I’m talking about, you know if you want to see this movie, or not.
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