Jaromil Jireš’s Czech New Wave fantasy “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders”

By on October 16, 2015

Originally released in 1970, and then largely unseen for the next thirty years, Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie a týden divů — known in English-speaking countries as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders — has been digitally restored by The Criterion Collection for a new DVD/Blu-ray release, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to tell you about it.

Valerie a týden divů is an unforgettable and somewhat surreal and haunting gothic fairytale, reflecting seven days in the life of Valerie, a thirteen year old girl on the very cusp of womanhood, played by Jaroslava Schallerová.

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As we’ve said, Valerie chiefly and thematically concerns the sexual awakening of an adolescent girl who is sought by men and women, by friends and relatives, and it’s clear she doesn’t quite know what it is taking place during this one week of wonders, as she’s pursued by priests and vampires: it’s creepy, scary, unsettling, romantic, beautiful, and often just plain confusing. With its non-linear story structure and characters that transform in the blink of an eye, Valerie a týden divů twists and turns much in the irrational manner of a dream.

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The film’s bucolic setting — it was lensed in the Czech town of Slavonice and the surrounding area — further enhances and evokes images of her sexual innocence, and there’s a kind of pagan sensibility to the underlying natural theme, a kind of return to the mythic romance of a lost agrarian life that also makes everything seem like this is a fantasy-world that borders on dreams and reality, almost like something you’d see in some of Fellini’s best cinematic features, namely Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) and Fellini- Satyricon.

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Schallerová has multiple, non-sexual topless scenes (the age of consent in the Czech Republic is fifteen, if you’re wondering), but it doesn’t ever feel like we’re seeing anything as remotely as icky as the erotic ephebophilia presented in some of those soft-focus softcore-ish European sexual initiation films of the 1970s, like Emmanuelle (1974), Bilitis (1977) and Histoire d’O (The Story of O, 1975).

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There’s so much more going on here than Valerie’s sexual awakening, however: the film can additionally be viewed as a Eastern European vampire horror film, a transgressive fantasmagorical art film, a symolism-drenced anti-Catholic fable, or even as a political allegory.

Let’s take up the last of these contextual aspects first, as the film appears in theaters two years after Russian tanks rolled into Prague to clamp down on the liberal reform taking place in what was then Czechloslovakia, a country locked behind the Iron Curtain, its people enduring life under strict Communist rule from Soviet occupation.

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At the time, the national film industry was heavily censored in an attempt at minimizing widespread burgeoning dissent, which of course actually created an underground movement of filmmakers, dubbed the Czech New Wave — and led by Jireš, perhaps their leading voice of dissent — were struck back against the controlling, conformist ideas of the government by making provocative films like Valerie, which seen through this lens seems more like a film about the unfairness of living under strict dictatorship rule than it does about a young girl’s blossoming into womanhood.

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Valerie is based on the novel Valerie a týden divů, written in 1935 but not published until 1945, when it received very little attention. Its author, a poet, really, named Vitezslav Nezval, was one of the most celebrated communist poets of the 20th century, and he’d been an active participant in what was called the Poetist movement of the 1920s.

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He was also one of the proponents of mid-20th century modernism, active in theatre and cinema and also collaborating on three features with the best known Czech auteur of the 1920s and 1930s, Gustav Machatý – Erotikon (1929), From Saturday to Sunday (Ze soboty na neděli, 1931), and Ecstasy (Extase, 1932), the last of which had created something of a scandal with its nude images of Hedy Kiesler (later, Hedy Lamarr). The film was quickly condemned by the Vatican.

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Nezval subsequently co-founded the Czech Surrealist Group in 1934, and there are certainly Surrealistic aspects here, and one such influence might have been Max Ernst’s collage-novel A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, 1930). Other influences included the Fantômas novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, which had been published in Czech in the early 1930s. Nezval also worked with the avant-garde novelist and film maker Vladislav Vančura on his film On the Sunnyside (Na sluneční straně, 1933).

Nezval was also said to have been an admirer of Matthew G. Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796), for which he had commissioned a Czech translation, and he was certainly familiar with F.W. Murnau’s film Nosferatu (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.”

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Nezval’s novel was inspired by fairytales and Gothic writing, but he intended the novel to appeal to those who, as he writes in his introduction, “gladly pause at times over the secrets of certain old courtyards, vaults, summer houses and those mental loops which gyrate around the mysterious.”

There are elements drawn from the sexuality-drenched horror genre here too, as you might expect from a novel and a movie that features a vampire named Tchor.

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Nezval was, it also needs to be said, an upper ranking bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information during the Communist seizure of power in 1948, and then, in the 1950s, became the personal secretary of Vaclav Kopecky, the most powerful (and feared) communist in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. Jireš adapted the film with writer and designer Ester Krumbachová, who had already worked with two other Czech New Wave directors, Jan Němec and Věra Chytilová, and stylistically there are similarities between her work with all three directors, although Valerie is unlike every other film Jireš directed.

Part of the film’s underlying theme is its anti-Catholic bias, which folds into a larger context in how the Czech people were being forced by the Soviets to embrace atheism, and its interesting to note that the characters who are the most religious — the devout Catholic grandmother, the middle-aged missionary priest and the vampirish priest-constable — all reveal their double moral standards, in particularly with regards to their sexual morality.

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A memorable illustration of this comes soon after a speech about saving a “negro” woman from the sins of the flesh, when the vampire-priest-constable enters Valerie’s pristine white room, tearing away his cassock to reveal a necklace composed of jagged animal teeth, before he basically tries to rape her, all to the sound of a pretty little music box, adorned with a spinning ballerina, twinkling away. The message is clear: bestial desire lurks behind his pious appearance.

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These examples indicate the film’s playful attack of the repressive, distorting and colonizing values of Catholicism. Like Grandmother, the vampire-priest-constable is a duplicitous hypocrite who preaches one thing yet does another. The defamation of the priestly father, however, has further resonance that might be read as a tacit critique of the contemporary regime.

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One of the seductive attractions of Valerie a týden divů is its magical trance-inducing quality, from the hypnotic harpsichord, flute and choir-based music, composed by Lubos Fiser. In 2006, members of freak folk band Espers — along with a few other musicians — formed The Valerie Project, and we were happy to see them performing their original compositions in unison with the film at a screening at the Silent Movie Theatre in November, 2007, presented by Arthur Magazine and others.

Valerie a týden divů may not have been well known outside the art house circles, but it did have an impact on those who saw it, including author Angela Carter, who saw it screened at the National Film Theatre in London soon after it was made. Her revisionary fairy- and folktales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), inspired at least one film, The Company of Wolves, which shares lush sexual imagery as Valerie a týden divů.

The Criterion Collection also contains three early shorts by director Jaromil Jireš: Uncle (1959), Footprints (1960), and The Hall of Lost Footsteps (1960), plus a few interviews with Czech film scholar Peter Hames, interviews from 2006 with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák, and an alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack to the film by the Valerie Project, with a new video piece on the music’s origins.

Here’s an essay about the film by critic Jana Prikryl, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.