Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly erotic, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from director Jaromil Jireš, a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has its own dreamlike logic where it all makes a kind of sense while you’re watching it. Then, like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…
That was my first experience of the film. I’ve wanted to write about it for a year now, because when I saw it on a crappy Youtube copy, I realized that I’d just watched something very special. I just couldn’t quite define what I’d watched. It probably didn’t help that I forgot a key detail – that our young protagonist, Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), is encountering her first period.
It occurs early on, and provides one of the iconic images of the film – a droplet of bright fresh blood on the head of a daisy – but the moment was lost to me almost immediately in the subsequent whirl of ravishing imagery, potent symbolism, ethereal beauty and earthy sensuality. Luboš Fišer’s score is also transportive, whisking you away to another time and place.
On second viewing, I was able to discern the film’s basic plot. Valerie lives with her stern grandma (Helena Anýzová), and from the day her first period arrives the beautiful young girl is haunted by the sinister specter of the black-cloaked Constable (Jirí Prýmek), who has designs on both Valerie’s budding body and her pair of magic earrings. She also attracts the unwanted attention of the creepy local priest, Gracian (Jan Klusák), who at one point tries to force himself on her.
Through these tribulations Valerie is assisted by a handsome young man called Orlik (Petr Kopriva), who may or not be her brother, and her earrings, which help her get out of tight scrapes like attempted rape and getting burnt at the stake.
Later Valerie discovers that her grandmother is in thrall of the Constable (who also is known as Polecat, and Richard), who was once her lover. Grandma happens to be a vampire, and sucking the blood of young brides restores her youth and vitality…
That’s as simple as I can make it, and that brief outline does absolutely nothing to convey the actual experience of watching Valerie and her Week of Wonders. At times it is maddeningly elliptical, but even when the events on screen are surreal, the individual scenes are constructed in such a way that it feels like they make narrative sense.
In terms of atmosphere, it reminds me most of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, where a primeval supernatural force within the rock is awoken by the schoolgirl’s burgeoning sexuality to spirit them away. It also has similarly sumptuous soft-focus cinematography and tender score, so I’d be curious to find out if Weir took any inspiration from Valerie.
Even if the story proves elusive, the film is so beautiful to look at that you likely won’t care. This is easily one of the most gorgeous looking movies I’ve ever seen, set in a bucolic wonderland in a period that seems to be simultaneously medieval times and the early 20th century. The indefatigable Valerie is set apart from the other people in the village, which is split between the pious hypocrisy of the clergy – personified by the lecherous and dangerous Gracian – and the cheerful raunchiness of the working class locals. Valerie is different from the other girls, and her individuality is most apparent during mass, when everyone else is wearing white, and she is wearing dark colours.
In between my first and second viewings of Valerie, I’d been approached by an independent filmmaker to review his film, Cold November. It’s the story of a young girl who, on her 12th birthday, is taken out into the woods by her family to hunt deer. This rite of passage coincides with her first period, and in one scene she removes her bloodied sanitary towel and hangs it on a branch to attract the bucks.
This scene really helped me out on my second viewing of Valerie, because now I understood why everyone in the film is sniffing around after her. Now I noticed that the two men most drawn to her are named Polecat and Orlik (Eaglet) – two predators. Where she was safe as a child before, the scent of her blood is now driving the animals in the village crazy – they’re all coming for her, intent on depriving her of her innocence. That is why the droplet of blood on the daisy is such key symbolism – in many old myths and legends the flower represents innocence and purity, and now it is tainted by her menstrual blood.
The entire film is rich with such symbolism. A cinephile could pause it at any point – each frame is a work of art – and take a deep dive into all the hidden meanings and metaphors, and come back up with something different and fascinating each time. Or, you could just smoke a spliff and bliss out to it.
There’s a Criterion collection edition of Valerie and her Week of Wonders if you fancy it. Click on the cover art below to visit Amazon and snap it up!