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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

New on Video: Simmering Czech Sexuality in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Posted By on Tue, Jun 23, 2015 at 11:00 AM



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Jaromil Jireš's 1970 film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is legendary, and not just because it has a terrific name. I believe I first read about Danny Peary's Cult Films books in the early 1990s, and when I worked at Le Video in the late '90s, the manager was more than a little proud of the fact that we had a low-gen VHS dub, which was the closest it had ever come to getting a domestic video release. It finally got appeared on DVD a decade ago from Facets Video, and now the Criterion Collection is releasing a 4K digital restoration on Blu-ray on June 30. It's the best that this lo-fi Czech New Wave film will ever look, all the better to luxuriate in its oddness.

A proper trailer from its original release has never been uncovered — there isn't even one among Criterion's extras — so here's Joe Dante discussing a recent one over at Trailers From Hell:


Criterion describes Valerie and Her Week of Wonders better than I could: "A girl on the verge of womanhood finds herself in a sensual fantasyland of vampires, witchcraft, and other threats in this eerie and mystical movie daydream. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders serves up an endlessly looping, nonlinear fairy tale, set in a quasi-medieval landscape." It's all that, and much more, particularly whatever you bring to it.

Valerie is quite different from more recent "sexual awakening" movies such as Young and Beautiful in that while it was produced by men, it never quite feels like an excuse to leer at the lovely Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie. (Heaven help me, I know Ms. Schallerová couldn't have been more than 13 during principal photography, but she is very easy on the eyes.) Or, at least, not just that, and for as much as it's about her contending with forces that may be beyond her control, Valerie retains a degree of agency even as the world around her gets increasingly bizarre, and it never feels like it's a condemnation of burgeoning female sexuality.

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Although there are vampires and devils and no shortage of surreality, there are no optical effects to speak of; everything on the screen was in front of the camera, and though the HD image makes it clearer than ever that we're watching actors wearing makeup, the strings showing doesn't have an alienating effect, but rather increases the feeling that we're inside Valerie's mind.

With its themes of pastoral paganism, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is quite reminiscent of The Wicker Man, though that film came out three years later and is considerably more straightforward. According to Jana Prikryl's included essay "Grandmother, What Big Fangs You Have!", writer Angela Carter saw Valerie in the early 1970s, and its tone influenced her 1984 sexuality-brings-the-monsters film The Company of Wolves. Making me especially happy is the fact that Valerie directly homages the most iconic shot from one of my favorite short films, Maya Deren's black-and-white 1943 Meshes of the Afternoon. It might be a coincidence — how many different ways can you frame a woman looking through a window? — but I suspect Jireš knew exactly what he was doing.

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Those are the kinds of things I take away from the film. No doubt you'll find your own wonders.



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Sherilyn Connelly

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