Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders d. Jaromil Jireš Spine: #761 Blu-ray Release Date: June 30, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image. Because my own Blu-ray drive broke this past week, Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has kindly granted me permission to use stills he posted on his website DVD Beaver (here) until I get my drive fixed.
After the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1968 ended a brief period of (relative) artistic freedom that flowered into the mysterious and fascinating films of the Czech New Wave, director Jaromil Jireš, who’d honed his craft fighting political censors to expose the communist regime during the 1960s, stayed in the country and continued to make films, albeit films that were less politically contentious. One such film, riding the final oscillations of the Czech New Wave, is 1970’s phantasmagoric take on the maturation of a young girl, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Containing the energy and creativity of the Czech New Wave — as well as a healthy dose of its metaphorical subterfuge — Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a playful fairy tale, filled with darkness and wonder, the wonder, as the title suggests, usually winning out. Today marks the film’s release on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.
This non-linear quasi-horror film is based on a novel by Vitezslav Nezval, himself an avant-garde, surrealist poet. Avant-garde, surrealist, poet: those words might be the best way to introduce the essence of the film, which doesn’t concern itself with narrative cohesion that might appeal to our logical side; rather, it appeals to our senses and impulses, making perfect, if quite different, sense — and it is very effective. I first saw this film when I was in my early twenties, and, honestly, more than any other film I watched in my younger days it helped me to understand and sympathize with the perils of a young woman’s adolescence. There are monsters there we men just don’t see.
Valerie is a thirteen-year-old girl who still lives in a white room that isn’t quite a nursery but isn’t too far from it. This is where she think and also retreats to should there be a need, though childish playthings cannot always protect one from leering monsters.
We follow the young Valerie as she sleeps in a gazebo and loses her earrings to a thief, then curiously looks upon the world around her, intrigued, for example, by the vibrant playfulness of a group of white-clad women bathing in a lake or enjoying a parade. Sure, we don’t understand what all of this means, but, then again, neither does she. It’s a time of puzzlement, but one that more than merits its intrigue. These seemingly unrelated events set the course for this week of discovery that will usher Valerie, in more dream-like imagery, from the innocence of childhood to the experience of the adult world, particularly the adult world of sexuality. The journey is perilous and wondrous, and there are plenty of individuals who have been wounded and who look to wound amidst all of the Freudian dreamscape that has its various corollaries in the world we live in.
Valerie lives with her grandmother, a pasty, gaunt woman, who may be seeking to protect Valerie from the adult world or who may be one of those individuals so wounded by her own adulthood that she suffers from her own perverse desires to inflict pain.
When Valerie talks to her grandmother about some of her recent experiences, her grandmother is not particularly happy. However, we get a sense of her grandmother’s own pain when Valerie tells her she has seen a particularly frightful man, someone the grandmother seems to know.
At about this point in the film, we become certain that all attempts to follow clear lines of logic will fall apart, wonderfully. The grandmother disappears, and in her place is a much younger woman who may or may not be the grandmother herself as a vampire, but who definitely is interested in Valerie’s blood. The monstrous man also has a porous identity, associated as he is to many of the men — or potential men (the lover of Valerie’s grandmother, Valerie’s own father, the priest) — in the film, who may be the same man but not necessarily so (after all, they cannot all be the same man in reality, right?). I do not want to suggest all men in the film are portrayed as monstrous, as there are those who seem to genuinely care for Valerie; in fact, some of these very men who may be the monster appear at other times to be quite noble and loving.
It’s is invigorating to let expectations of coherence and logic go and simply considers the multiple ways of thinking about the film itself. This is reality cast upon multiple planes, mimicking quite nicely that strange time when we become adults, when we become aware of and start to see more clearly the dots in the world around us, though our abilities to connect the dots are not quite developed.
For example, Valerie knows that in some way — perhaps not literally, but perhaps too literally — the men are connected, particularly in their menace. Just as interesting are the many other forces that act upon Valerie — these dots that surround her — in particular Christianity and other women who have also found predominantly joy or suffering, and can dole out either.
Deliberately jumpy in its editing and pacing (and plot!), the film is held together by its fantastic imagery and aural delights that come by way of an enchanting score by Luboš Fišer.
Between this release and last week’s release of The Bridge, Criterion brings a nice conclusion to the first half of 2015.
- Three early shorts by director Jaromil Jireš. Though made while Jireš was in his mid-twenties and mostly as apprentice pieces, the three short films presented here are uniformly well done and interesting, the kind that are worth returning to on their own merit.
- “Uncle” (1959) is a 6-minute, nicely produced film in which a man’s attempt to burgle a home is interrupted by a child.
- “Footprints” (1960) is a 12-minute film with a relatively clear narrative (compared to what we see on the rest of the disc) about an escaped prisoner and the family who try to protect him, though he’s left footprints in the snow.
- “The Hall of Lost Steps” (1960), at 12 minutes as well, is not related to “Footprints.” What we get here is a thesis about the premature death of thousands and their posterity rendered in a series of juxtapositions (a pan of a happy crowd in a train station with a soundtrack of machine gun fire, for example).
- Resurrecting the Avant-Garde: This is a 16-minute interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames, conducted by The Criterion Collection in 2015. Hames is an expert I’d like to have heard from more, as this supplement, though nice, seemed to just start heating up when it was over. Apparently there is another DVD edition of the film on which he provides an entire commentary, and I wish we’d have gotten that or something similar here.
- We also get two short 2006 interviews with Jaroslava Schallerovai (who played Valerie) and Jan Klusaik (who played the priest), each running just under 6 minutes. They are very short, indeed, but surprisingly filled with tidbits. Schallerovai talks about how she got the role by chance and how her mother was on set the entire time. I cannot imagine watching a daughter work in some of those scenes, and apparently the one where Valerie is getting burned at the stake was hard to stomach, if not one that would cause me most concern. But Klusaik has that discomfort, stating that he didn’t like portraying the lecherous priest and didn’t want to do the scenes.
- The film also comes with an alternate soundtrack:the 2007 psych-folk experiment The Valerie Project. For me not nearly as wonderful as the original score, nevertheless the project is a successful perspective on the film, besides featuring some pretty great music. The disc also contains a 15-minute video piece on the project itself, More Than a Soundtrack: The Valerie Project.
- The package closes with an accordion-style fold-out leaflet featuring an essay by Jana Prikryl, “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Grandmother, What Big Fangs You Have!” I particularly loved the essay’s opening, which goes into the strange context surrounding the production of this lively film: the post-invasion glum of Czechoslovakia. Prikryl’s essay also goes into how this film fits into Jireš’s work as a whole.