Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Jaroslava Schallerová, Helena Anýzová, Petr Kopriva, Jirí Prýmek, Jan Klusák, Libuse Komancová, Karel Engel, Alena Stojáková
When it comes time to make a fairytale movie in the United States, we tend to either take a macabre old story and scrubbing it relatively clean of shocking aspects and trolls yanking the thumbs off a child and forcing the poor tyke to eat them (pretty sure that’s a real story), which are replaced with singing home appliances and household pests; or we go the “21 century gritty and edgy” route, where the picture itself is digitally filtered and color tinted, the costumes showcase a lot more cinched-waist leather and absurd weaponry (almost always a rapid fire “machine gun” crossbow), there is more gore and computer generated blood, and the dialogue is made more modern and peppered with a greater amount of foul or modern language. This is not to say that entertainment cannot be wrung from these sorts of films. Wearisome devotion to the same color alteration, leather outfits, and general tone aside, the modern “dark and grim” fantasy genre has produced some winners, or at least some films that were perfectly acceptable entertainment. But it’s much more impressive to unnerve, chill, enchant, and disturb the audience in the bright, cheery light of a sunny meadow full of flowers. And that’s exactly what is accomplished by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu), an allegorical Czech fantasy film which on the surface is about a teenage girl just trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
Despite finding itself under the thumb of Stalin’s Soviet Union after World War II, grey and miserable totalitarian Communism never quite seemed to take in what was then Czechoslovakia, no matter what The Party or the secret police demanded. There was (and still is) something too…weird…about the Czechs, in the very best sense of the term. Wonderfully weird, infused with a creative spirit and appreciation of the esoteric, odd, and absurd. After all, this is a nation whose most famous ruler, Rudolf III, aspired to turn Prague into global capital of mysticism, magic, and alchemy, inviting wizards and alchemists and charlatans from across Europe to live in the city he had honeycombed with secret alchemical tunnels and laboratories. The core incompatibility between the dreary seriousness of Communism and the playful Czech spirit came to a head in 1968, when a period of political liberalization was kicked off by newly elected and reform-minded Alexander Dubček found himself elected as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. For the next eight months, Dubček set about lifting censorship restrictions, increasing personal freedoms, and decentralizing the economy in a brief but hopeful period known as the Prague Spring.
It all came to an end in August when the Soviets got so upset with this sudden flurry of freedom and fun that they rolled in with the tanks. But during that era, a number of artists spread their wings, and even after the guns were pointed in their direction, the effects of that brief thumbing of the nose at dour Russian rule were long-lasting. It took the Soviets eight months to finally quell the uprising. Opposition to invading Warsaw Pact forces sometimes took on rather a whimsical (though effective) air, including obscuring road signs or turning them to point in the wrong direction, sending columns of Soviet tanks and troops off to get lost. During this exciting and tumultuous time, filmmaker Jaromil Jires made his first feature-length film, The Joke, released in 1969 and telling the story of a man (Ludvik Jahn, played by Josef Somr) who finds himself ejected from the Communist party after cracking a joke. In an attempt to get his humorless Communist girlfriend to lighten up one day, he sends her a postcard that reads “Optimism is the opium of mankind. A ‘healthy spirit’ stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky! Yours, Ludvík.” Soviets had no sense of humor when it came to Trotsky (accusations of Trotskyism seem as common and as serious as that of being a capitalist). She, of course, turns the card over to the authorities. After six years of brutal prison, mining, and army service to atone for his crimes, Jahn sets about getting revenge against those who testified against him by, as is usually the way in movies, seducing ladies.
Despite being released after the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring during which the film was produced, The Joke was a huge hit, at least until the Communist Party flexed its muscle and had it banned for the next twenty years. The movie secured Jires’ position as one of the preeminent members of the Czech New Wave, a group of artists who excelled at making strange, wonderful, thoughtful, and often playful films (no doubt because subscribing to the solemn tone of an Antonioni or Rossellini would seem too Soviet) that managed to subvert Communist authority even as the Hammer and Sickle was coming down to put an end to the flare-up of hope and joy. Jires’ follow-up film didn’t have the same degree of freedom to be overtly anti-authoritarian, but then artists have been circumventing such restrictions for decades, usually by relying on the narrow, literal minds of censors and the inability of such people to see beyond the most obvious of elements. Released in 1970 and couched in the harmless looking vestments of a fairytale, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a gorgeous, hypnotic skewering of everything from religious and political authority to chauvinism and exploitation, all disguised as a film about a teenage girl coming of age in a surreal fantasy world version of the late 19th century.
Orphan Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová, also in Karel Kachyna’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid from 1976) is a beautiful teen girl who finds herself in a precarious situation. Her first period signifies her first tentative steps into womanhood, and almost immediately the world around descends upon her with an assortment of unsavory intentions. She lives with her stern, religious grandmother (Helena Anýzová, from Juraj Herz’ disturbing Spalovac mrtvol, aka The Cremator), who is unwilling to tell Valerie very much about her long-missing parents and who treats the young girl with that all-too-common confusing duality adults tend to have toward teenagers: expecting responsible grown-up behavior from them while also still infantilizing them and treating them as children. A mysterious figure of religious authority (Jirí Prýmek) — his exact role is vague and tends to change with the film’s fluid’s narrative — takes a sinister, perhaps supernatural interest in Valerie. A local priest named Gracian (Jan Klusák) takes a more physical but no less sinister interest in Valerie as well. Any moment of peace she has, or of contemplation, or of simply enjoying her life, is interrupted by one of these three predators. Her only ally against them is the undependable Orlik (Petr Kopriva), who seems at first he might be her first love — until they begin to unravel the mystery of their origins and discover they might be brother and sister.
Of the sundry forms of authority that come to prey upon Valerie, none is so explicitly skewered as religion. Jirí Prýmek’a nightmarish ghoul of a religious leader is the most photogenic, a literal and figurative vampire feeding off the bodies and spirits of the townsfolk as he cuts Faustian deals. In any given circumstance, he could be a fire and brimstone preacher, a Lothario, a vampire, a seducer, a protective father, a common swindler, a murderer, a small rodent. He above all the other characters represents the human capacity to contain multiple and sometimes contradictory personalities and intentions. He is the personification of any one human’s capacity to commit evil deeds then seek (and achieve) redemption and forgiveness for them — to die but later be resurrected, only to give in again to temptation. Despite the evil he commits, his character, like that of Valerie’s grandmother, is not without sympathy. For all their supernatural manifestations and mysterious powers, the missteps they take, the betrayals they commit, are not incomprehensible. They are the missteps and betrayals all of us commit during the course of a life.
The youth Orlik’s identity is similarly vague, as he is, from one scene to the next, a slave, a coward, an artist, brave or cowardly, and Valerie’s friend, then lover, then brother. Even Valerie’s grandmother has a fluid state of being, though hers is easier to decipher — an old, once beautiful woman, willing to betray anyone in order to relive her days as a great beauty — even if it means becoming a vampire. She is the vector by which the sundry forces assaulting Valerie obtain access to the poor girl. Although she infantilizes and protects Valerie, demands that the teen live within the confines of childhood innocence, grandmother is also quick to exploit for her own gain the prurient interest in Valerie shown by the men around her.
It is the grandmother who makes Valerie available to the leering priest, refusing to believe that a holy man could be anything but, well, holy. It’s unlikely the grandmother isn’t aware of the priest’s sleazy attentions. Her deference to his religious authority comes partly from blind faith and partly from willful ignorance, that by sacrificing Valerie on the altar of Father Gracian’s lust, she might obtain for herself greater stock in the church, greater consideration of her faith, more power. Similarly, she is more than willing to throw Valerie to the wolf (or the rodent) that is Tchor, to basically sell Valerie into slavery in exchange for the promise of eternal youth, to give Tchor Valerie and all that belongs to Valerie. In both cases — standing in the church and standing in the eyes of a society that judges women by their youth and beauty — the grandmother’s primary motivation is vanity.
One can see, in the ghoulish, vampiric Tchor the looming specter of Soviet authority seeking to crush the liberation of Valerie, of Czechoslovakia. The fleeting moments of peace, of happiness, of wonder that Valerie experiences are her own Prague Spring — the promise of freedom and whimsy and happiness constantly snuffed out by the grim, greedy villains around her but still willfully reigniting no matter how many times they attempt to stamp it out. In these moments, her grandmother becomes her mother, Tchor has his demon’s mask stripped away and becomes Valerie’s loving father. But they never stay. As an orphan, Valerie is prone to idealize her missing parents. But when she encounters them, she discovers what every kid has to discover sooner or later: that adults are not infallible. That they are not always correct and cannot always be trusted or depended upon. And that they will at times react to their own fallibility poorly, blaming everyone but themselves even though they too must have undergone a similar disillusionment with adults when they were themselves children.
Valerie’s parents are always banished, give up on her, are transformed back into vampires and exploiters. Valerie cannot depend on them, just as the Czech people could not depend on NATO or others in Western Europe to stand with them against the tides of Soviet oppression. Just as children must some day stand on their own feet, even if that independence is opposed by parents who covet youth and either do not want to see it blossom or do not want to release their own hold upon it, remaining stubbornly nostalgic for the days when they were young and pretty and full of curiosity. Yet again, despite all that is grim and grey, despite those that prey upon her and send her curious and happy spirit into a coma, Valerie remains unrepentantly hopeful. She refuses to be cowed by these lecherous creeps, refuses to let them define her womanhood.
Political symbolism aside, Valerie is still the story of a girl becoming a woman and of the ways society preys upon her, seeks to dismiss her as childish while coveting her sexually as an adult. No character is more emblematic of this than the vile priest Gracian, whose desire for Valerie in obvious and whose willingness to blame her for his bad behavior is tragically predictable. When he seeks to rape her, it is not his own shortcoming. No of course not. It is Valerie’s fault. Valerie’s fault for being young, for being pretty, for being friendly. Valerie’s fault for being female. The man thinks, how dare you make me tempted? Women are blamed for the weaknesses of men, for the shortcomings of institutions. When we do not understand them, we condemn them, burn them as witches. We demand they be sexual and chaste. In the realm of the religious, they are celebrated, elevated — the virgin Mary — then condemned, preyed upon, and treated as chattel to be traded, to behave as servants. Of course, this attitude is hardly related to religion. Among the positive contributions of the modern social online world is the exposure of deep-rooted bias against women in everything from academia to science fiction fandom. Those of us who count ourselves rather on the liberal end of the scale have been forced, often times with huge dollops of denial, to deal with the reality than women in research, in scientific endeavors, in the creative arts, are often as discriminated against as they are in religion, in the conservative arenas of which we are so self-righteously contemptuous.
And yet despite all this, Valerie soldiers on, unwilling to let the corruption of male-driven institutions dampen her spirit. Unwilling to let craven and predatory men drain her of her sense of wonder. Refusing to let herself be hammered down by women — her own grandmother — who are beholden to the old ways, who have agreed to play the roles assigned to them by the men. It’s telling that Valerie’s most dependable, purest friendship is with a young bride, promised at an early age to her older husband but not entirely at ease with her role as wife and mother. In fact, her wedding procession through the village is mistaken by Valerie as a carnival of actors — and in many ways, it is. People playing at being revelers, playing at being the happy bride, inhabiting the roles assigned to them by the expectation than marriage is a joyful affair when in reality that can be very far from the case. The bride and Valerie find temporary solace from the world when they are with one another — until the bride herself becomes the target of vampires. Valerie’s curiosity regarding same-sex friendship and experimentation is treated as wholly natural, just another avenue the awakening of curiosity often takes one down, innocently and freely before the guilt and condemnation of adults tricks the young into thinking it is impure, unnatural, or unholy.
Valerie’s other friend, Orlik, is more problematic. His fluid identity — as friend, as lover, as brother — is a reflection of the way relationships between the sexes change as children become teens. He is a dependable friend, a sly collaborator, a partner in crime. But as Valerie becomes a woman, that asexual childhood friendship becomes romance, or potential romance. He acts not because they are friends, but because he desires her. Loves her. Wants Valerie’s affection in return. It’s not a condemnation of that transformation; merely an example of it. One more thing with which Valerie must contend. One more adult hassle bundled onto the shoulders of a person who is neither adult nor child. One more expectation, however much without malice Orlik may be. And he is without malice. After all, he is going through his own transformation, though it is not the focus of the story. From boy to man, from servile to free, from safe within the confines of being told what to do to having to figure out his own road, make his own way in the world. Like Valerie, he is exploited by Tchor, used as free labor, his every move toward becoming his own man greeted with violence by those who have grown comfortable knowing that can use him to make their own lives easier (at one point, Tchor insists that he literally be allowed to stand on Orlik’s back). In this sense he becomes not Valerie’s friend, not the awkward boy with a crush on her, but is her brother. Her comrade in arms. Another person struggling to blossom under the disapproving weight of the previous generation.
Unraveling the narrative of Valerie becomes much easier when one divorces oneself from the notion that the movie has a narrative. It is easy, even rewarding, to sit back and take in the dance of the macabre and the sublime, the parade of vampires, black magic, gorgeous imagery, and Pagan strangeness the film offers the eye, to enjoy this sumptuous feast without attempting to unravel the mystery behind it. But should one want to divine deeper meaning, it is there so long as one abandons the need for traditional story structure. Although the more-or-less linear narrative is and always has been the dominant structure of the feature film, it’s not the only structure a film can have. Those that experiment with the form, that shrug off the expectation that a movie should have some decipherable logic or reasoning, are freed from restrictions. This can make for strange viewing, as we are long conditioned to regard film as a fairly straight-forward style of storytelling. But a movie like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, benefits from its divorce from logic. It is a fairytale after all, a dream, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect logic or linear narrative from a dream. Strange things happen. People arrive and vanish without explanation. Characters change. They die and return. Their identity can change abruptly in the middle of a “scene,” and within the dream it all makes perfect sense. Attempting to inflict the logic of our waking life on the dream world is folly.
Unbeholden to the demands of a logical, linear narrative, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is free to indulge in dream “logic,” to play in the territory of fairyland, where the constraints of the waking human world do not apply. It would be a betrayal of the story to insist that it conform to logical expectations. Fairytales should not operate by the same rules as other tales. Czech cinema’s long history of experimentation contributes greatly to Valerie’s successful conjuring of a dreamscape, its ability to use the avant garde as a means of exploring an idea rather than telling a linear (or even non-linear) story. It is not a style of filmmaking that bows at the altar of the origin story, of explanation and the idea that film has to conform to a decipherable narrative instead of being used for other forms of expression. In the hands of a less adept writer or director, dream logic can seem too obvious an affectation. It rings false. Or, it remains too similar to the logical waking world, the filmmakers unable to fully divorce themselves from the rules of the real world. Valerie aims for and achieves its dream world. There is a sincerity in Valerie, a genuine strangeness. It is not a literal-minded director being weird for the sake of weirdness. It is not a dream that behaves as the real world, only with the occasional monster.
But this isn’t just a dream. It’s not just surrealism. It’s also an attempt by a child who is no longer a child to interpret the adult world into which she has been thrust and about which she has been told so many lies. If the nature of those around Valerie changes abruptly and without explanation, it is not just because we are dreaming; it is because Valerie herself is trying to make sense of things that seem to have very little rhyme or reason. She is trying to process the fact that those who adored her as a child now resent her as a young woman (in one scene, an incarnation of Valerie’s grandmother attempts to spoil the young girl’s coming of age by dwelling on the cramps she will get), that those she trusted as a child suddenly have entirely different intentions. Children are usually poorly prepared for this jarring transformation, which is why adolescence is such a difficult time. Chemical and biological changes are tumultuous enough. Having to deal with the upheaval of society around us is an entirely different pile of stress. If you think Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a difficult film to understand, it’s nothing compared to a teenager’s task of understanding the adult world, of processing the temptations and demands and thrills at once available to them yet still forbidden.
Is it any wonder that, after enduring all of this, Valerie wants nothing more than to get some sleep without being interrupted? Facing all of this vile nonsense is exhausting.
Jaromil Jires is aided to a great degree in successfully achieving this sense of inhabiting a dream by his cinematographer, Jan Curík, and his musical composers, Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák. Curík’s camera captures a world drenched in sunlight, conjuring an atmosphere ripe for contemplative reverie and daydreaming. It is beautiful, soothing — but not to mask the danger and evil that lurks within and threatens Valerie. It’s not the old “beneath the veneer of beauty lies ugliness” cliche. Instead, Valerie’s world as lensed by Jan Curík is beautiful in defiance of the ugliness that can dwell within it. It’s the visual poetry that trumps the darkness. The setting — sun-dappled fields, cobweb-strewn catacombs, opulent manor houses, the maze-like streets of a town somewhere between the medieval and the modern — is the perfect place for such a story, familiar from so many other stories yet disorienting. The music heightens this sense of the unreal, of the familiar transformed into something supernatural, strange, and despite the presence of Christianity, something more than a little Pagan (there are several scenes Pagan in nature — from circles in the woods to the sensual ecstasy of a local peasant girl as she writhes in the embrace of a tree, her male lover seemingly inconsequential when measured against nature). Fiser and Klusák lend to this dreamscape exactly the soundtrack it needs. You can guess the tenor of the story simply by listening to the music. It combines multiple styles: the playful baroque or harpsichords, the sinister undercurrent of woodwinds, both at play amid a combination of chants, prayers, and children’s nursery rhymes.
But perhaps no other crew member is as responsible for Valerie’s power and message than screenwriter Ester Krumbachová, who bases her screenplay on a 1945 novel by surrealist Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval. Krumbachová was another of the luminaries of the Czech new wave, writing some of the period’s best and most forward-thinking films, including 1966’s surreal feminist farce Daisies, and three of the best Czech films of 1970: Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme), the harrowing witch trial film Witchhammer (Kladivo na carodejnice), and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Krumbachová’s screenplay keeps young Valerie’s feminism at the forefront of the story, infusing it with an authenticity of experience that could not have come as effectively from a male writer. Without Krumbachová’s involvement, Valerie could have subverted its own intentions, turned the exploration of a young girl’s coming of age into the very sort of exploitation it sought to criticize. Films dealing with sexual awakening are by their very nature prickly, as dealing honestly with the material requires imbuing adolescents with a sexuality we like to pretend they do not have. At the same time, one must portray sexuality without lapsing into the realm of the leering. Valerie has a thin line to walk, and Ester Krumbachová keeps it on track, never denying Valerie’s beauty but never allowing the film to stray from its message. In fact, Krumbachová is doubly responsible for Valerie‘s success, as she also did duty in the realm of art direction and costume design.
All of this would count for nothing, however, without Jaroslava Schallerová’s performance as Valerie. In a moment of art imitating life, it was perhaps unfair to expect this young actress — like her character, only fourteen or fifteen at the time — to shoulder the entire weight of this strange, ambitious movie. For her to be all of Czechoslovakia, and all of womanhood. But like her character, Jaroslava Schallerová perseveres and triumphs. Her performance as Valerie is enchanting, engaging, and empathetic. There is a combination of willfullness, confusion, fear, and joy that makes her Valerie a tremendous hero. She might not be jumping off of moving trains or throwing down in bouts of fisticuffs, but she’s no less an active fighter and one finds oneself cheering for her and fearing for her. Her journey through this perilous, sensuous phantasmagoria is harrowing but, ultimately, affirming. It’s all thanks to Schallerová’s ability to deliver what the story demands of her. The cast around her is more than able. No one is a weak link. But it’s Jaroslava Schallerová’s film. Under the guidance of Ester Krumbachová’s script, Schallerová’s Valerie is a recognizable blend of open-minded youthful boldness and shyness, young enough to be trusting but old enough to be suspicious. Her sexual awakening is not a think to be condemned but to be embraced. It’s the attempts to steal it from her — either by denying it or forcing oneself into it — that Krumbachová rightfully sees as worthy of our contempt.
Despite intense social and political messages, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is not a grim, oppressive movie. It is not about defeat, but triumph. The film’s final scene, in which nearly every version of every character parades through the village streets and Valerie finally gets some rest, is in a way a premonition of the jubilant Velvet Revolution that would remove the Soviet yoke once and for all some nineteen years later. It is a testament to the determination of the Czech people to be true to their own character no matter the attempts to force upon them some external system of behavior fundamentally at odds with their own — a character perhaps best summarized by how all of this political symbolism passed by resurgent Soviet dominance without being caught. Valerie‘s fairytale trappings were the sign pointing the wrong direction that sent Soviet tanks down the wrong road. Overarching it all is young Valerie’s ability to remain steadfastly optimistic, hopeful, and curious despite all the attempts to control her, subjugate her, or own her. It is the story of whimsy’s triumph over the grim, of liberation’s victory over oppression. Rather than wallowing in the sadness of death and defeat, it is a celebration of life and of indomitable spirit. After all, it’s not Valerie’s week of hopeless exploitation and suffering. It’s her week of wonders. And she refuses to let anyone rob her of that.