Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

(Valerie a tęden divu, Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1970)


There is an entire modern culture – in art, literature, music, and cinema – springing from the legacy of Lewis Carroll’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871).


I refer not to the reassuring children’s story retold so as to provide the young with moral lessons and a comfortable rite of passage into socially sanctioned adulthood. Rather, I mean the hallucinatory dreamscape of constant metamorphosis that allows a subversive, leading role for blossoming female sexuality and the attractive dangers of existence’s dark side.


Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is the Alice myth turned inside out and set ablaze. This trippy succession of dream images – set to a non-stop soundtrack of experimental-medieval-folk-rock by Lubos Fiser that sounds entirely au courant today – throws everything into the war of eroticism versus repression.


There are nuns, dark towers, a black-caped figure of Death, lovers cavorting in fields, monstrous couplings, magic objects, perverse alliances … and all dressed and designed in that baroque, Eastern European style we recognise from the films of Walerian Borowczyk and many other directors of the 1960s and ‘70s. Jireš was a strong, important part of the brief flowering of the ‘60s Czech New Wave.


At the centre of this film is a young girl, Valerie, played by Jaroslava Schallerová, who was only 13 at the time of filming. (It would be hard to get away with this in the film industry of today, almost anywhere.) The story effectively begins by matter-of-factly narrating the detail of her first menstrual period – but, although there is plenty of familiar, vampiric, horror-genre imagery in the film, this is no Carrie (1976).


Rather, Valerie is floridly lyrical, enraptured by the flow of water, the burst of sunlight, and the ripeness of flesh. It is, paradoxically, a portrait of budding sexuality that retains an innocent air.


What happened to Carroll’s Alice in cultural history is quite clear: she was gleefully abducted by the artists and thinkers of surrealism, in all its diverse forms and manifestation throughout the 20th century and beyond. Inspired by the Freudian dream-work and Marxist social theory alike, surrealism took Carroll’s tale as a template of wonder and revolt.


This cultural figure of the little girl, in her many changing incarnations, is less a three-dimensional, psychological character than a mythic figure – projecting herself wildly into everything she sees and experiences around her, imagining her destiny fleetingly materialised as this fair maiden or that old crone, this voluptuous seductress or that stern school teacher …


Valerie remains astonishing for the way it packs this dreamlike parade of projections and transformations into a mere 73 minutes; it is a small epic of surrealist cinema. Working from a novel by the celebrated Czech writer Vitězslav Nezval (1900-1958), Jireš provides, in film history, the missing link between the unimpeachably surrealist career of Luis Buńuel, and the politicised fantastications of UK novelist Angela Carter, whose script for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) owes much to Valerie.


Although there were plenty of commentators in the 1960s art world ready to pronounce surrealism a long-dead movement, the cinema rallied its dearest and darkest powers, at that time, to assert otherwise: the films of Buñuel, Nelly Kaplan (The Pirate’s Fiancée aka A Very Curious Girl, 1969) and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are proof of that enduring vitality.

© Adrian Martin January 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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