Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Mike LeSuer brings us Jaromil Jireš’ 1971 fever dream Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Released at the tail end of the Czech New Wave, the film playfully explores the nuances of puberty from the perspective of a young girl in one of the movement’s more malleable allegories for the country’s relationship with an oppressive communist regime.
It’s always helpful to have a handful of genres to fall back on when describing a film, but for Jaromil Jireš’ 1971 postscript to the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, applicable classifications such as “surrealism,” “psychological horror,” “fairy tale,” “coming-of-age,” and “erotica” not only seem too disparate to peacefully coexist in a single coherent feature, but none of these terms accurately sum up the, well, wonder of what has often been referred to as Freud’s Alice in Wonderland.
The film concerns itself with the titular Valerie and what can best be described as an abstract interpretation of the frightening transition into adulthood and sexual maturity for the young teenage girl who observes her world changing around her. What makes it odd is the fact that we’re not witnessing the events that lead to an internalized development in the young protagonist, we’re viewing the external world through her point of view in response to such novel occurrences. In Valerie’s pubescent eyes, the roles of family members and neighbors (and Nosferatu-like vampires who commonly take the place of most male adult figures in her life and are collectively known as “the Weasel”) are constantly shifting as feelings of fear, alienation, and distrust develop as quickly as her body does. In the first five minutes we witness a single drop of blood landing on a white flower, Valerie walks over, permanently blemishing the innocence and beauty established in the film’s blissful opening credits montage.
While the term “fever dream” is all too commonly thrown around in the realm of surrealist filmmaking, Valerie necessitates the label in regards to its utterly incomprehensible content in a perfectly sound state of mind, yet on some subconscious level the story couldn’t be more coherent. In the film’s brief seventy-three minute runtime, Jireš (who directed and co-wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Vitězslav Nezval) is merciless in assuring the audience’s inability to piece together anything like a linear narrative, attributing multiple identities to each character and seemingly jumping back and forth between various simultaneous (sur)realities.
Yet under the spell of its dreamlike imagery and the bright grainy colors of the film itself, it becomes easy to adopt a certain dream logic that, mixed with nostalgia for our own vampire-fearing teen years, allows us to accept each non-sequiturial transition as rational without really knowing why. Keeping in mind that this is Valerie’s week of wonders, rather than seventy-three minutes of wonders in real time, is perhaps key to understanding why she’s able to fall asleep while burning at the stake and wake up moments later outside of an underground brothel.
Even when the action is centered around her, the film almost feels like a series of vignettes portraying the voyeuristic Valerie’s imagination, ignorance, and impishness in the face of immoral adult behavior. The dreamlike quality is enhanced by the fact that many of the most shocking scenes are from Valerie’s point of view, conveying a sudden inability to control the forces of her external world. In the scene where she’s watching fully-formed girls slightly older than herself bathing in a river she self-consciously glances down at her own underdeveloped breasts, gawking at the girls’ behavior which is exaggeratedly sexual, though not altogether abnormal. However it’s established that this is peculiar to Valerie as from her perspective we see one girl slipping a trout down the front of her own dress, subtly alluding to the confusion and revulsion of seeing humans as sexual creatures for the first time.
Later, facing accusations of witchcraft from a priest who attempted to rape her, Valerie again reacts childishly by teasing the priest as she dozes off on a burning stake. Again, moments later she reacts to the overwhelming situation of panoramic pleasure in the brothel by slipping poison into the Weasel’s cup and watching him drink it with a certain Kevin McCallister-like glee. Both scenes depict a heightened sense of involvement in the adult world, but confirm that she still refuses to adapt.
Due to the overt depiction of evil in the form of seriously unsettling bogeymen in an otherwise idyllic setting, Valerie brings to mind the work of David Lynch, who fifteen years later offered us a similar exposition of a Freudian coming-of-age story, Blue Velvet. Though somewhat uncharacteristic of Lynch to personify evil in a figure as literal and (relatively) un-bogeylike as Frank Booth, we see the same introduction to the irrational forces permeating the adult world through the virginal eyes of a young protagonist, whose accumulation of experiences are suddenly dwarfed by an exponentially larger world. Like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, Valerie must fill in the blanks of inexperience with what she already knows about life, which apparently includes an excess of fairy tales with a specific focus on vampirism.
What makes Valerie more frightening than Velvet, though, is the normality of bipolarity in the adult world, whereas Booth and his underworld of unspecified inhalants and Orbisonian crooners are more objectively villainous. Valerie has no one to turn to as every parental figure is a potential vampire, except her neighbor known as “Eagle,” a love interest and possible brother, whose name likely stems from Valerie’s perception of him as a protective figure (or predatory in relation to the Weasel). It’s Eagle who provides stability throughout the film until her brief demise, or petite mort, she suffers at the stake for which she feels forsaken by him (“Why did you leave me, Eagle?”) in homage to the ultimate dual-identity character of the New Testament.
Valerie also differs from Velvet in that there’s no resolution. Acting as a surrealist slice-of-life picture documenting the early days of puberty, Valerie doesn’t share the assimilation to conformity ultimately reached in Lynch’s slice-of-ear drama. While she’s come to terms with the world in which women are ambiguously submissive to the carnal desires of black-caped men, she politely smiles as she disregards their invitations for accompaniment and returns to her bed in the film’s final moments.
Equal parts alluring and revolting, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a work of duality, demolishing the lines of good and evil, friend and enemy, consciousness and subconsciousness, youth and adulthood. Though portraying adults as capricious hybrid creatures, we find that Valerie may be the most terrifying hybrid herself: half-girl, half-woman.
Author: Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Assistant at Facets.