Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Original Theatrical Poster for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
One of the things that I have to say I’ve come to appreciate about Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Instant, and what-have-you is that while inadvertently undercutting many independent theatres, they have also done a lot to increase the exposure of some long-forgotten cinematic gems. The duty of unearthing movies from the vaults of past decades previously fell to the independent film circuit. Unfortunately, rising print costs have made it increasingly difficult for such theatres to showcase anything that’s not going to draw some semblance of crowd.* On the other hand, because the stream-instant business model tends to favor lesser-known titles, which are both cheaper to license and screen for long runs, they’ve ended up with some of the titles that used to be the mainstays of independent Cineplexes (e.g. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man on Netflix).
While I am in no way suggesting that Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, etc. have anything that rivals the collection of films we have here at Facets – not that they aspire to – they do occasionally turn up a good flick on an otherwise lackluster Tuesday night. That being said, they also showcase a lot of crap, so sometimes the ordeal of finding something to watch feels like thrift store shopping, where you have to wade through the mire before you find that golden egg that justifies the whole previously miserable shopping experience.However, Hulu’s recent partnering with the Criterion Collection has definitely made my late night browsing significantly easier. Moreover, ever since the Gene Siskel’s 35mm screening of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, I’ve been on something of a Czech New Wave kick, so when I stumbled across Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromil Jireš on Hulu, I decided to give it a look.*
While I found the actual plot of the film so sparse, so insignificant, and so difficult to recapitulate so as to be almost entirely forgettable, the film itself is a surrealistic masterpiece worthy of Dali or Buñuel. Moreover, the film’s title, an homage to Alice and Wonderland, did a lot to reassure me that following events as they unfold is not essential to appreciating the spectacle of erotic vampirism, which serves as a backdrop for the psychological exploration of the nymphet of a protagonist’s post-menstrual sexual anxieties and yearnings.
What I found really wonderful about the film was its bizarre tone and genre-play. In this sense it’s comparable to the Japanese kitsch horror flick Hausu (House), which, if you haven’t seen, you really should. In the case of Valerie, the viewer is continually assaulted by scene after scene in which lecherous men pray on the prepubescent girl, Valerie, though, oddly enough, one never really feels a sense of anxiety, dread, or fear. I can’t explain why this is, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the villains in the film are so horrifying in appearance, though pathetic in demeanor, so as to render them entirely unthreatening.
Visually, the film’s cinematography is best characterized as a juxtaposition of extremes; a modern take on chiaroscuro. The feature also employs so much soft-focus, so as to call to mind the aesthetic of Sapphic soft-core pornography. This aesthetic mood, however, remains at odds with the striking costume design, evocative of some of the more dreary paintings by Edvard Munch. Moreover, sequences themselves are edited to be disorienting, making it difficult to follow the events as they unfold, not to mention parse out what is dream from what is reality. It’s as though the film strives to recreate what Freud describes as the “oceanic feeling” of childhood – when the ego feels a sense of oneness with its external surroundings – only to bring it under fire in the wake of Valerie’s sexual maturation.
Apparently, the only way I can seem to describe this movie is by way of Freud, so forgive me for that, but be sure to give it a view.
*Luckily, we have no shortage of theatres in Chicago that are committed to bringing you films you wouldn’t otherwise discover, so instead of turning to Hulu and Netflix to sate your appetite for quality independent cinema, you should go out and support your local independent theatre. If you need ideas, checkout our list on Foursquare and don’t forget to check-in wherever you decide to go!
**Ironically enough, the original DVD release of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders in the US was only possible thanks to Facets.
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