Valerie a Týden Divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970)
A disturbing surreal erotic horror coming-of-age fairytale of political allegory by Jaromil Jireš marks the end of Czechoslovak New Wave.
Jaromil Jireš was one of the most significant directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave. For his third feature film he decided to adapt another book after Milan Kundera’s Žert (The Joke, 1968). Valerie a Týden Divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) is the best known work of the poet, author, screenwriter and co-founder of the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group, Vítězslav Nezval. The book is an allegorical fairy tale of horror that is characterized by the lack of narrative sequence and bold experimental storytelling. Nezval wrote it in 1935 but the book was firstly published a decade later. The adaptation by Jireš comes in 1970, 25 years after the first edition.
The story is set in a fictional town during the Middle Ages and the central character is Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a 13-year-old girl. During her Week of Wonder, Valerie discovers that she is coming of age when she gets her first period. She also receives a pair of magic earrings which will protect her from dying. Her sudden sexual awakening will be accompanied by a series of fantasies. In those fantasies she will be hunted by Tchor (Jirí Prýmek) – Weasel in Czech – a vampire who sometimes is transformed into a bishop and others into a policeman. Luckily Valerie is not alone; she lives with her pious grandmother (Helena Anýzová) and her poet and singer brother Orlík (Petr Kopriva) – Eagle in Czech – who always protects her. At the same week a group of actors will come to the isolated town in order to perform at a wedding and a strange missionary (Jan Klusák) will arrive from abroad.
When Nezval wrote his book, he was strongly influenced by Matthew Lewis’ gothic novel, The Monk (1796) that he also translated in Czech language. He was also impressed by F.W. Murnau’s film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) on which he wrote in a review “In art, horror must be more than horror, it must be poetry.” The combination of these two works is natural to produce a very dark and scary result. With some more influential touches by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Karel Hynek Mácha’s epic poem Máj” (May) then the book comes even closer to surrealism. Finally by adding a hint of pedophilic suggestions, some repressed sexual urges that need Freudian analysis and a few indecent notions from Marquis de Sade’s Justine, then the result is Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Jireš remains faithful to both the structure and the style of the book and he deliberately directs an extremely complicated movie. He doesn’t give any answers, he doesn’t follow a linear narrative and he mixes intentionally and methodically the plot of the movie. This happens because the original fairytale is consisted of short stories that each one starts inside or right after the other. The stories also have vivid action but they always remain semi-finished. Likewise the tale, the characters are not simple or innocent. Nobody has a definite identity, except Valerie. Tchor who is representing the bourgeois established authority of religion and state, is also the father figure who wants to rape her. Her brother, Orlík, seems as free as an eagle because he is an artist, but for that reason he is not reliable and he develops with her a deeply incestuous erotic relationship. Her grandmother may also be her mother who is sexually tempted by Valerie. Her whole family wants to seduce her and lure her into orgies. Paradoxically, Valerie goes through all these tough and awkward situations without losing her childhood innocence and her ethereal appearance is consistent with the dreamy fantasy that she wants to build around herself.
This effortless transition from the oneiric world to the real one and vice versa was the element that really charmed Jireš in Valerie. Moreover this sensation could beautifully match with the Czechoslovak lyricism, which he fondly admired. The lyricism is characterized by enormous use of endless landscapes combined with poetic aesthetics and plain natural colors. So with the catalytic help of his permanent director of photography, Jan Curík, Jireš manages to deliver a lyrical horror film. By capturing the gorgeous summer countryside of South Bohemia and by remaining sacredly faithful to the power of the bold and highly textured colors under the natural light’s exposition, he succeeds to create a shining tenebrous picture. It is unique when this contextual dark film could seem so blissfully brilliant. The orchestral music by Luboš Fišer, along with the children’s choir could also increase the levels of lyricism and horror at the same time. Finally it should be noted that Ester Krumbachová – the “grandmother” of Czechoslovak New Wave – played a major role in the film’s production. Krumbachová and Jireš co-wrote the screenplay, while at the same time she was the production designer and the creator of the costumes. “Without Ester this film would not exist” Jireš declared.
The filming of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders took place during the summer of 1969, a year after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Despite the fact that Jireš was immediately granted the permission from the censorship committee, mainly because Nezval was a known communist, his film is criticizing the political situation of the current period. Nezval in his book is accusing the Catholic Church of hypocrisy, immorality and for oppressing the middleclass society through imposed ethical and religious restrictions. Jireš uses the same accusations but now these are addressed to the Communist Party. Like the Church in the past, now the Party requires similar blind faith in the ideological morality even when this leads to social suffocation and kills any liberal artistic forms of expression. The reality is that these two institutions are obsolete and cannot represent anyone anymore; they are just surviving as vampires and for that reason the only thing that keeps them active is by spreading their terror.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders was one of the last films that enjoyed the freedoms gained during the Prague Spring. Undoubtedly this is a key film in the history of Czechoslovak cinema not only for its historical significance but also for the multilayered variously disturbing interpretations. Like the book, the filmic adaptation has also gained a cult status in modern culture. Nezval’s description of his book could be easily applied to Jaromil Jireš film too. According to the author, Valerie is a “free, concretely irrational psychic collage of everything from the genre of so-called pulp literature that belongs to the nethermost regions of our unconscious.”