Jaroslava Schallerová in Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970)
The Czechoslovak New Wave, while not exactly short on surrealist eccentricity, is currently represented as a movement led by a group of avant-garde auteurs such as František Vláčil (Marketa Lazarová, 1967). The truth is that the movement actually produced more oddball idiosyncrasies from filmmakers such as Jan Švankmajer (Alice, 1988), Věra Chytilová (Sedmikrásky, 1966) and Vojtěch Jasný (The Cassandra Cat, 1963) than it did arthouse drama and medieval poems. And perhaps the crowning achievement of this cultish strand is Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), a sensual and ghostly voyage into womanhood and sexual awakening that recalls Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice In Wonderland, and its 1871 sequel Through The Looking Glass.
The film is based on Vítĕzslav Nezval's 1935 novel of the same name; a Gothic-Romantic fantasy written at the peak of Czech surrealist literature. Alice In Wonderland is an obvious influence on the text but for his peculiar adaptation Jireš and co-screenwriter Ester Krumbachová also turned to cinema of the past, including F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) for the design of the vampire who haunts Valerie's (Jaroslava Schallerová) life and dreams. A plot synopsis is futile because the jagged, dislocated succession of images that make up the film are bound to be interpreted by each viewer in a slightly different way; the basic narrative, however, finds Valerie dawning upon womanhood after her first period and finding herself drawn to a performance act entering town - but her pursuit of pleasure only finds darkness, vampires and monsters, as well as sexual debauchery and Freudian nightmares. Valerie, who is 13 years old (Schallerová was also 13) discovers her sexual being at the hands of men and women, and is seen nakedly bathing in natural light on more than one occasion.
I can't claim to have fully understood every aspect of the film, but I have my interpretation. What impressed me most on a cinematic level was just how equally absorbing and terrifying the world created by Jireš was. DoP Jan Curík (Zert, 1969) captures the folkloric town, burgeoning sexualities, lurking evils and mythic demons with an alluring aesthetic beauty, bathing the film in white angelic lights on the surface and oil-black shadow in the caves below. He also complements Ladislav Bacilek's makeup work, which is almost theatrical in its extremes; Valerie is imbued with a naturally attractive pink and her ravishing brown locks frame her face in such a way as to allow light to filter through and illuminate her pale complexion. The vampire is incredibly theatrical - his swooping black cape serving the OTT white makeup that makes him hauntingly ghost-like and other-worldly. Makeup artists often go unsung but there's no way of reviewing Valerie's Week Of Wonders without mentioning the stunning work accomplished here. The photography also frames the landscape on some peculiarly disorienting angles, bringing season to the heightened world with crisp autumn greens and yellows, which evoke feelings of warmth, therefore making the thematic darkness all the more profound. Spider webs litter attics and barns while fire plays a dominant part in most of the narrative, and it's all captured with a confidently foreboding elegance.
The music by Lubos Fiser & Jan Klusák is also achingly beautiful, mixing star-like lullaby, children's choir, folk acoustics and music box tinkling to starting effect, giving the fairytale a genuine sense of wide-eyed innocence. Music does so much to enhance the feeling of a world, and there's no doubt that the score to Valerie could be listened to on its own as a soothing berceuse; it's with the images that the sounds gather an erotic dread. Some of the symbolism is a little overbearing and obvious; for example a scene which sees Valerie in a white robe laying herself into a room of pure white, indicating innocence and purity. The virgin finds herself in several Christ-like poses and her distant stares through cross-framed windows, light pouring onto her body, can become a little grating. But overall this tale of fruit and blood is a wonderfully sensory experience, delicate and ravishing with Schallerová providing a gorgeous lead. The film provided a clear influence on Neil Jordan's The Company Of Wolves (1984) but its roots are in the distinct past...
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I
thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly.