Criterion Corner: New To Blu - Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders

This last week, Criterion released Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders.

"Hehehehehehe. I'm not really sleeping."
Lewis Carroll’s satirical fantasy Alice in Wonderland may have had endless rabbit holes, anthropomorphic creatures, a hookah smoking caterpillar and a looking glass, but in the recently re-released 1970 Czechoslovakian surreal provocation Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, we’re thrust deep into a world even stranger, infinitely more subversive and harder to follow than anything Carroll could have imagined.  The tail end of the Czech New Wave which included the hyperactive Daisies and the explicit W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, loose narrative of a thirteen year old’s budding sexuality as experienced in a fantasy netherworld of lesbian trysts, sleazy priests, vampires, witches and surreal pagan rites falls somewhere in the middle.  On the one hand it’s loosely based off a 1945 novel by Vitezslav Nezval of a young girl whose earrings possess mythical powers much to the chagrin of her grandmother and a band of vampires which seem inspired by Max Schreck.  On the other hand it’s a free-for-all in terms of deliberately disjointed editing, lush fullscreen cinematography and the whimsically ethereal score by Lubos Fiser. 

Truly a funky odd duck spoken of the same breath as Nobuhiko Obayahsi’s Hausu with the abstracted narrative style of the aforementioned W.R., Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is truly a lovely looking and sounding head trip.  The soundtrack alone influenced the eventual creation of the psych-folk band The Valerie Project which provided an accompanying alternative soundtrack to the film.  Not everyone, particular staunch Criterion collectors, will immediately embrace this peculiar and perhaps even meandering exercise in pure cinema.  It’s also worth noting the reduction of the titular Valerie’s age from 17 in the novel to 13 in the film can’t help but raise a few eyebrows when she finds herself either naked or cornered by salacious vampires.  Contrary to the novel which seemed to follow a linear thread, director Jaromil Jires intentionally leaves key passages of the dark fantasy out to exude even further confusion than before.  It also is surprisingly short running at a brisk 76 minutes.  Not to worry though, as Criterion has provided plentiful extras rounding out the package with three early shorts by Jaromil Jires, interviews with Czech film scholar Peter Hames as well as actors Jaroslava Scallerova and Jan Klusak and best of all, an alternate soundtrack by The Valerie Project!

"Nope. I just look like Mike Meyers."
The elusive narrative, provocative presentation of nubile young women and bouts of offhand wackiness will no doubt divide cinephiles.  As a fan of both Dusan Makavejev and Vera Chytilova, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders doesn’t disappoint in terms of its rebellious protest against what was termed by the Soviet Union as ‘films for a socialist person’.  As expected, Valerie wasn’t taken lightly by those who first saw it, as when the Soviet Union tried to bury it by withholding it from exhibition at the Sydney Film Festival.  Oddly, despite the censorial move by the Soviets, director Jaromil Jires continued making films well into the 1990's.  As Valerie stands today, it is undeniably an interesting, idiosyncratic curiosity.  Whether you grasp the phantasmagoria at hand might be beside the point.  At a time when film was being overseen by communist powers intent on allowing films to be made only as they saw fit, the Czech New Wave saw to combat such a repressive creative and political climate by assailing cinemas with broken narratives, sexual provocation and above all, a deliberate breakdown of the ways movies are meant to be made.  As a product of anarchic Russian and Czech sensibilities, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is the lightest and probably the loveliest looking and sounding of the bunch!

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-Andrew Kotwicki