Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is another one of those Czech New Wave movies, riding on the curiosity that was Daisies only several weeks ago. While I didn’t love that movie, it had plenty of things going for it, so knowing that there was a whole canon of movies like it (and that my girlfriend kept pestering me to watch some of them) I decided to go into the next one that looked most interesting. I don’t really feel like it’s necessary to recount the historical context of the Czech New Wave here, as it doesn’t apply much to today’s movie, so feel free to check out that Daisies piece for some background information on what this era of films was all about.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
I feel like there’s a whole sub-genre of films I would describe as phantasmagorias, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders would sit right at the top of the pile if such a thing was to exist. It’s not quite fantasy and not quite horror but a dreamy combination of the two, unsettling of imagery but feverishly playful with its internal logic, so that the movie unspools less like a story one actually follows and more like a half-remembered vision one pulls out of the deepest, sleepiest memory.
The story concerns the 13 year old Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a girl who is just beginning to blossom from childhood into young adulthood. The movie, as much as one could pull a full narrative out of it, concerns the story of her looking for a stolen earring, and the horrors she encounters in the lengthy and convoluted journey to try to reclaim it. That story involves family betrayal, sexual predators, vampires, homosexual experimentation, and plenty of heavy religious shaming. If you are already leaning towards saying “Oh, this movie is about what it means to grow into a sexual being” then congrats, you’re officially paying attention to thematic material in movies.
What’s interesting is just how nebulous that is portrayed and explored in the movie. Certainly that kind of parallel isn’t particularly strange (just look at the sexual threat of David Bowie in Labyrinth for a poppier version of the same thing) but Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is infused with a medieval symbolism that seems to fly in the face of the more rational tradition of film and narrative that stems from 19th century morals and inventiveness. If they were making movies in the 16th century, they’d probably look like this.
And that means there’s a rather casual carnality to the movie that is full of deep magic that vaguely presents as religiously themed but is more generally spiritual. This is a medieval world of superstition and magic, where anything can happen, and people live and die for strange and only dimly understood reasons. Where vampires and priests are both otherworldly in ways that are hard to distinguish, and the ties of society loosen and fly apart when confronted with the realities of complex situations. I wouldn’t call it amoral, but it’s certainly concerned almost fully with shades of grey.
Most interesting to me is the vampire, who seems to have preyed on Valerie’s grandmother and many of the other women in the town in the past. That figure, as gross as he is, seems to be associated with a certain romantic time in their life of all the women of this world. And unlike a typical vampire, he doesn’t suck blood so much as bites and devours the spirit of people, leaving them drained and aged. This vampire isn’t a Stoker-style nosferatu, but a symbol of death itself, a mortality that comes to women on the cusp of puberty and lingers with them throughout their lives, until they’re old and gray, a mortality-through-sexuality that expresses itself in menstruation and childbirth, the life and death cycle that women go through regularly through most of their lives.
And into that comes this sexual awakening that Valerie goes through that changes her perspective on life. The threats of magic and the awe of lovers become mundane as she grows and gains knowledge, and the realities of liaisons lose much of their mystery and power when she sees through increasingly adult eyes just how insignificant they can be, and how far people will go and twist themselves for them. There’s a certain cynicism to the movie about sexuality, a nonchalance that masquerades in a false Christian moralizing that one might think seeks to shame but really is more a jest to point out how silly self-righteousness is in the face of universal human lust.
And all this is buried in a movie that is lush and beautiful in a way that so few movies are, shockingly colorful for such a muted setting and fairly restrained despite the amount of frank sexual content (some of which veers into the thematically gross, which is code for me warning you there’s a solid amount of rape/assault in the movie), which juxtaposes the maturity of the ideas with the fairy tale quality of the cinematic language to create a movie that formally straddles the same adolescent fence that Valerie herself is trying to climb over in the course of the movie. The combination, as complicated and confused as it can sometimes be, is impressionistic as few films endeavor to be.