Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) was made by Jaromil Jires after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia put an end to the Prague Spring, and to most of the efforts of the Czech New Wave directors (for instance, Jires’ previous film, The Joke, was banned). Valerie is based on a surrealist novel by Vitezslav Nezval (which I haven’t read); it doesn’t involve politics in any direct way (though some viewers have seen an implicit, anti-Soviet political allegory hidden within it). The film’s eponymous heroine is a 13-year-old girl menstruating for the first time and coming to sexual awareness through a series of fantastic, oneiric events and encounters.
It’s hard to know what to make of this film, especially in its original Czech context. I remember its being marketed in the US, in the 1970s — though I never managed to see it back then — as a psychedelic, counterculture cult film, i.e. one you were supposed to see stoned. But I doubt that this was the way it was marketed, or received, in post-Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia. (By the way, pardon the digression, here is an amazing account, by the great Czech director Jan Svankmajer, of being given LSD in 1972 by the Czech military, as an experiment similar to ones the US military had conducted 10 or 15 years previously. Of course Svankmajer had a horribly bad trip — as who woudn’t under such circumstances?).
Anyway. Valerie is intensely, and quite classically, surreal. The plot is more or less linear, but filled with strange transformations and reversals, and involving themes and images of blood-menstruation, vampires and sex-as-vampiric-possession, and all sorts of suggestions of incest (father-daughter, brother-sister, mother-son). There’s a very beautiful shot, for instance, of a flower on which a drop of Valerie’s menstrual blood has fallen.
The oneiric disassociations and repetitions/variations of bizarre sexual motifs are worthy of Bunuel (think of Belle de Jour) — but alas, the film entirely lacks Bunuel’s dryness and irony. Instead, Jires aims for a tone of rapture combined with frissons of horror. The images are suffused with light (for daytime scenes), and subtly shaded (in nighttime scenes) in ways that are often gorgeous, but also, often, so overdone as to feel rather cheesy or kitschy (terms that I intend descriptively, and not pejoratively); at times, the film modulates into the picture-postcard excessive prettiness of softcore Europorn (it’s not as explicit as, say, the Emmanuelle series, but we do get to see the breasts of the lead actress, Jaroslava Schallerova, who — like her character — was 13 years old at the time the film was made: this is something that would be impossible today. And then there are all those insert shots of a group of young women, all dressed in virginal white, cavorting and making out in a stream).
Still, despite this male-gaze prurience, Valerie does manage to maintain, for the most part, a female-sexuality based point of view, appropriate to its adolescent heroine. (Tanya Krzywinska, in the best article I have been able to find online about the film, rightly compares it to the fiction of Angela Carter, and to The Company of Wolves (1984), Neil Jordan’s film from Carter’s script). The look may sometimes be Europorn, but the narrative organization isn’t: there are none of those phallic climaxes that gratify the hetero male viewer, even when (as in Emmanuelle) the woman’s pleasure is being stressed. Or, to put it another way: Valerie is a film about female pleasure. But whereas in 70s Europorn, like so much straight porn, the male characters — and through them, vicariously, the male viewers — get the credit, or the gratification, for inducing and producing this female pleasure, in Valerie there is much more of a sense of the woman’s (I mean the girl’s) autonomous ability to acquire and sustain such pleasure.
I’ve said that Jires aims for (and often achieves) a tone of rapture. But this is less a St. Theresa-esque bliss beyond words, than it is a continual modulation of affect (and, in cinematic terms, of lighting and coloring) in ways that skirt (or flirt with) terror (the erotic/horrific frisson). Valerie is nearly raped by the local priest — but she escapes; the priest then has her burned at the stake as a temptress (but she emerges unharmed). And adult sexuality appears to Valerie as something (literally) vampiric: the figures of father, priest, and lover tend to become confounded with that of Nosferatu, and the pious grandmother with whom Valerie lives is transmogrified into a raging demonic figure of ungratified lust (at one point, she attains what she hopes is eternal youth by drinking a virgin’s blood). But these demonic and vampiric elements don’t have the sorts of puritanical connotations (dread and sexual repression) that they would have in an Anglo-American context. I hesitate even to call them psychoanalytic. The film is quite easily (as Krzywinska notes) open to psychoanalytic interpretation, but this very openness and obviousness obviates the need for any sort of depth psychology.
Valerie is about surfaces, not depths: the innocence and lightness of a play of metamorphoses, rather than the weight of sexual fixations and intractable ambivalences. This is why its moments of (generic) horror are never particularly horrifying or dread-inducing. And I think that this is also the reason for what I called, above, the cheesiness and kitschiness that its extraordinary visual beauty is always just on the verge of lapsing into. (I should add, sonic beauty: the score, with its harmonic tinkling and its vaguely religious a cappella choruses, is also quite ravishing in a way that comes perilously close to something entirely generic). There’s almost nothing that separates bliss from banality: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is poised right on that nearly invisible edge.